Trading in old mindsets

At last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the United States Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, laid out a compelling, upbeat vision for a future Indo-Pacific.

‘Ultimately, we can help to achieve a world of law and free choice,’ he said, ‘banishing the world of war and coercion.’

Understandably, in his defence role, he couched his address in terms of threat and challenge. But, by doing so, he failed to address unresolved contradictions in US policy which China will exploit as Sino-American rivalry increases.

In his speech, Austin argued that an unparalleled network of alliances and partnerships would ensure the region remained free, open and governed by the rule of law. He referenced the strengthening of the Quadrilateral Dialogue involving Australia, India, Japan and the US, the new trilateral technology-sharing AUKUS partnership,together with the tightening of links with ASEAN and Pacific countries.

Wisely, he back-pedalled from pushing America’s democracy agenda, concentrating, instead, on the rules-based international world order, arguing: We must all reaffirm our common commitment to uphold international law, and defend global norms, and oppose unilateral changes to the status quo.’

With that in mind he declared, ‘Today, the Indo-Pacific is our priority theatre of operations. Today, the Indo-Pacific is at the heart of American grand strategy.’

But, while Austin made more than a dozen references to the concept of international law, there was no mention of the key legislation central to maritime disputes with China, the United Nations Convention of the Law on the Sea.

Drawn up in 1982, UNCLOS’ stated aim is to ‘settle, in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation, all issues relating to the law of the sea.’  China signed onto UNCLOS at its inception and ratified it in 1996.  The US has yet to ratify.

The obstacle lies with Republicans in the 100-member Senate, where a two-thirds majority is constitutionally required to ratify an international treaty. Republicans argue that being beholden to UNCLOS would undermine US sovereignty, and that same argument has shelved a long list of treaties yet to be ratified. They range from the International Criminal Court, to laws on climate, torture and corruption.

Austin chose to bypass UNCLOS because he knows the situation will not change in the near future, showing that America’s commitment to international law can only go as far as domestic politics allow.

Austin also attempted to paint Beijing as a law-breaker by referencing the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against its claim to much of the South China Sea.

But he left out similar court decisions in 2019 from the International Court of Justice and in 2021 from  the UN’s Maritime Law Tribunal. These judgments found against the United Kingdom’s sovereignty claim to a swathe of the Indian Ocean where unwelcome vessels have been routinely escorted away by the Royal Navy.

The British Indian Ocean Territory is home to the highly strategic American military base on Diego Garcia, which is leased from the British. From Washington’s viewpoint, taking Diego Garcia away from British sovereignty is strategically unworkable.  Therefore, international law is ignored.

From Beijing’s viewpoint, UNCLOS and Diego Garcia are just two examples which make a mockery of America’s commitment to a rule-based international order, and the cherry-picking of international law diminishes this central argument surrounding the US Indo-Pacific policy.

In his 2017 book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?,the academic Graham Allison warned of an increasing likelihood of conflict unless there were a change of mindset in both Washington and Beijing.

As of now,there has been little detectable change.  

By painting a canvas of ‘war and coercion’,Austin is pushing the Indo-Pacific toward that much-cited scenario of a new Cold War. Yet the countries of the Indo-Pacific are near unanimous that they do not want to be propelled towardsmaking binary choices between superpowers.

What they do want is to jostle together as they have done for millennia with their mix of cultures, values and politics held together by the glue of commerce and trade.

This is the lifeblood of shared values that flows through the region.  The semi-authoritarian city-state of Singapore which hosted Austin is a glittering Indo-Pacific success story based on prioritising trade over democratic freedoms.

America’s own mentored democracies of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea owe their achievements to their skills at innovation and commerce.  Becoming the world’s factory created modern China.

Yet, surprisingly, Austin made no mention of trade.

Perhaps, if he had, it would have hinted at the much-needed changing American mindset and shown a clearer empathy and understanding of the region he is pledging to protect.

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