Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

What rules-based international order?

  • When everyone has become a revisionist and Western powers are selective in following their own rules, the whole system loses credibility

When Western leaders accuse China and Russia of trying to undermine the rules-based international order, I am reminded of the title of an old album by The Cranberries, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?

Both countries certainly have their share of responsibility, but they are hardly the only ones. Despite its own pacifist constitutional restraints, Japan has stealthily built one of today’s most formidable military forces. It has, in all but name, emerged as a pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific because it has turned away from its once exclusive focus on economy and trade, and avoidance of foreign interventions.

After years of complaints from Nato and especially the United States, Germany is finally committed to increasing defence spending to more than 2 per cent of its annual economic output, or gross domestic product. Its military budget more than doubled to 100 billion euros (US$102 billion) this year from 47 billion euros in 2021.

The US has mostly given up on key international institutions it had previously helped to build, most notably the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, except when they serve a convenient purpose.

Nato is set to become Asia’s powder keg problem

While everyone in the West denounces Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they conveniently forget the US’ serial interventions, subversions and interference across the globe, not to mention the invasion of not one but two sovereign countries in the past 21 years.

While the Western powers vow to save Ukraine in the name of the global order, they have been willing to smash up the world economy, thereby exposing low-income countries to food crises and even potential famine, and more middle-income countries to debt crises. According to the International Monetary Fund, more than 50 countries are now unable to service their debts without external assistance.

Some democracies and Western allies have become prickly partners, among which are Hungary under Viktor Orban, Türkiye under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India under Narendra Modi.

Meanwhile, after decades of co-prosperity, Australia has openly identified China as “an adversary”. The Australia-US Ministerial Consultations Joint Statement of September 2021 states that the two countries will work together “to develop recommendations to promote a secure and stable Indo-Pacific region and deter our adversaries”. Everyone knows who they are referring to.

When those who are supposed to uphold the system have been relentlessly chipping away at its foundations or exploiting it when it’s convenient, it’s hard to convince others not to do the same.