Importance of the rules-based international system

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Amanda Gorely, Daniel Pruce - The Philippine Star

Like all countries, the Philippines, Australia and the UK benefit from an international system founded on strong and credible rules. Without these rules, we would all be poorer and less secure.

Following World War II, the international community created a shared system of laws, rules and norms to govern how we interact with each other. The Charter of the United Nations affirms the sovereign equality of states, commits us to cooperate to solve economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems, and prohibits the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN.

ASEAN is at the heart of the system in this region, as emphasised in Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper and during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney earlier this year. Both Australia and the UK are committed to ASEAN centrality.

This system has delivered an extended period of peace, security and prosperity. The UK and Australia have benefited considerably, as have the member states of ASEAN. Many hundreds of millions of people in the region have been raised out of poverty. A continuation of the rules-based order offers a continuation of these benefits.

In recent years, serious threats have emerged. It is vital for all states to protect and promote the rules-based international system against irresponsible and destabilising behavior.  All states must live up to their international obligations.  Permanent members of the UN Security Council have a particular responsibility to uphold international peace and security. The International Criminal Court is an institution we consider to be a cornerstone of this system. We regret the Philippines has decided to leave.

Three areas of the rules-based international system warrant particular attention. 

After protracted negotiations, in 1982 the international community agreed on a comprehensive legal code governing all maritime areas, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS sets out the rules by which countries can resolve maritime claims, both in terms of what constitutes a valid claim, as well as ways of peacefully resolving disputes. Both Australia and the UK are parties to UNCLOS, and we have found the rules incredibly helpful when it comes to resolving the maritime boundaries we share with others. Earlier this year, Australia and Timor-Leste agreed on a maritime boundary following the first ever conciliation under UNCLOS.

Australia and the UK take no position on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. But, we have concerns about tensions and are committed to maintaining a peaceful maritime order under international law. This includes UNCLOS and the 2016 decision in the Philippines-China arbitration, which is binding on the parties. We oppose impediments to the freedom of navigation and overflight. We urge against actions likely to raise tensions, including militarisation. It is critical for regional stability, and for the integrity of the rules-based international system, that disputes in the region are resolved, not through force or coercion, but in accordance with international law.

World War II reminded the international community of the horrors of conflict. In the decades following that war, the international community agreed to prevent the proliferation of some weapons and prohibit the use of some of the most inhumane. In the 1990s, the international community agreed to ban the use of chemical weapons anywhere and at any time. Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen chemical weapons used in four countries: in Iraq and Syria, including by the same terrorist organisation – Islamic State – that inspired the attack on Marawi last year; in Malaysia, one of the Philippines’ neighbors; and the UK. We need to do our utmost to ensure that such heinous crimes are not repeated. We condemn the attack that took place in the English town of Salisbury in the strongest possible terms. This is a grave challenge not only to the security of the UK but also to shared security. It is a time for all countries to stand up and be counted in tackling this challenge.

Alongside these threats to peace and security, we are also seeing threats to economic prosperity. One of the great economic achievements of the last century was the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947. Ultimately, this led to the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Coupled with bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, the GATT and WTO led to the liberalisation of trade, which generated sustained economic growth around the globe.

This system too faces challenges. Protectionist sentiment is on the rise. A trade war is possible, from which there will be no winners. Such zero-sum approaches threaten the international rules-based system and threaten the prosperity of all. Some experts suggest the Philippines could be particularly hard hit. This is why we urge all countries to strengthen the existing system, reject protectionism and embrace free and open markets. For its part, the UK is looking not only to strengthen its relationship with ASEAN, but also to seek potential accession to CPTPP, to which Australia is already a signatory. 

In the face of challenges, it is clear that strong rules are important for all nations, including the Philippines, Australia and the UK. To protect our security and prosperity it is incumbent upon us collectively to defend the rules-based international order.

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(Amanda Gorely is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. Daniel Pruce is the British Ambassador to the Philippines and to Palau. Follow them on Twitter @AusAmbPH, @DanielPruce).

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