Australian and PRC government conceptions of the international order - with Simone van Nieuwenhuizen

Guest: Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, Project and Research Officer, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

Host: Elena Collinson, Senior Project and Research Officer, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

In Australia, discussion of the current state and future of the international order is thriving. This discussion has been precipitated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s growing economic and political importance, as well as questions surrounding US commitment to the existing order.

How do the Australian and PRC governments view the international order? What terms do they use to describe and explain it? How do they conceive their own roles and the roles of other actors within the international order?

Simone van Nieuwenhuizen joins Elena Collinson to discuss her latest research into Australian and PRC government conceptions of the international order.

The ‘international order’ is a contested concept. The Australian government’s preferred terminology is ‘rules-based international order’, while the PRC government tends to omit the ‘rules-based’ prefix, opting for ‘international order’. This is because the PRC considers the existing rules to be fundamentally unfair.

Both governments have articulated their desire for reform to key institutions, especially the United Nations (UN). However, their reform priorities diverge. For Australia, the emphasis is on preservation and maintenance of the existing order while encouraging ‘buy-in’ from emerging powers. The PRC, on the other hand, has called for the development of a ‘democratic and equitable’ international order.

The joint statement of the 2018 EU-China Summit ‘reaffirmed [both sides’] commitment to…the rules-based international order’. This does not, however, necessarily indicate a change in the PRC’s understanding of the international order; the statement was consistent with previous PRC government statements emphasising sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders, and specifically highlighting the UN Charter. 

The PRC government exhibits a ‘split personality’ when it comes to its own role within the international order. Some statements and documents refer to the PRC as a ‘developing major country’, while others refer to it as a founder and upholder of the international order. This ‘pragmatic self-deprecation’ enables it to promote its self-proclaimed role as an advocate for emerging powers, or as a key player, depending on the context. Australian government statements emphasise Australia’s role as a supporter of a US-led international order.

For the Australian government, the rules-based international order is US-centric; the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, for example, suggested that without continued US leadership the existing order would collapse. The Australian government considers Japan to be among its ‘like-minded partners’. The PRC government, by contrast, has rebuked Japan for challenging the ‘post-war international order’, and its 2015 military white paper criticised the US’ ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy.

In 2014 the PRC government began to use the term ‘rule of law in international relations’ in discussions of the international order. The timing of its introduction and dissemination coincides with the PRC’s domestic push for ‘rule of law’ reforms. The meaning and implications of this new terminology remain unclear and require further research.

Theme music by Sam J Mitchell.

August 02 2018