Is Rules Based International Order the New Credibility?

February 25, 2019

The Henry Jackson Society recently put out a report The South China Sea: Why it Matters to “Global Britain”.  The core of the argument is that China is trying to exert claims over the South China Sea that should be opposed and that the Royal Navy should carry out freedom of navigation patrols to contest this claim.  Fair enough.  This then slides towards a claim that the navy should be big enough to manage (in collaboration with others) the Chinese threat.  Given the history of the Naval presence in the Far East during the 20th century (for instance concluding the Anglo-Japanese Treaty  allowed the withdrawal of forces to confront Germany before the First World War, the sinking of of the Prince of Wales and Repulse in December 1941) you can ask how feasible or sensible this is.  However what I was really struck by was use of ‘rules based international order ‘as a justification for this: the Chinese actions threaten the RBIO Britain is committed to defending the RBIO hence Britain must respond.

The idea of RBIO is a staple of UK foreign policy discourse.  The difficulty is I have with it is that practically anything can be made part of the RBIO.  It is the equivalent of ‘credibility’ in US Cold War discourse.  Anything can be treated as threat to credibility any retreat or restraint could be damaging.  What was dangerous was the failure to look at problems in a bigger picture that evaluated different values instead of a reduction to a single ill defined consideration of credibility.   It’s the same with the RBIO, what’s needed are ways of defining what the RBIO is and prioritizing threats and responses and areas for negotiation.  If RBIO is always treated as a seamless whole but which lacks a shape or nuance its defence becomes a slogan for practically anything.



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