Study Group on Rules Based Order? Strengthening consensus on the rules and principles underpinning international order




CSCAP Singapore, CSCAP Malaysia, CSCAP China, CSCAP Japan, CSCAP Russia and AusCSCAP


Introduction and significance of the study


The significant shifts in the relative strategic weight of a number of the major countries in the world have generated concerns that the order and stability enjoyed by the international community could be put at risk. In a number of states, one response to these concerns has been to stress the importance of continued compliance with the so-called rules-based order (RBO). The frequency with which this notion of an RBO has been referred to in government documents and official speeches has risen sharply over the past several years. Much of this increased usage states or implies that some other states are stepping outside the RBO.


Insofar as the issue has actually been discussed and debated, it can be said that it is not clear that the participants have a common understanding of the entity – the RBO – they are discussing. Much the same can be inferred from the diversity of perspectives on what should be happening to international rules in the prevailing circumstances, perspectives that range from specific reforms or adjustments to reflect the new distribution of strategic weight to no change whatever because the order is a common interest to states regardless of size and stage of development. Reference has been made to disagreement over rules – but usually without spelling out exactly how views differ.



Order and stability are clearly of the greatest significance for the Asia Pacific. It follows that our region has a great deal to gain from working to ensure a thoughtful and disciplined debate on the rules-based order and, conversely, a great deal to lose if that issue were to become a vehicle of division and dispute rather than cohesion.



Objectives of the study

The Study will have three primary objectives:

 (a)  to establish the extent to which there is a common understanding on what constitutes the so-called RBO and on the functions/roles it performs.


 (b)  to identify the dimensions of the RBO that are a source of particular controversy and determine the reasons for controversy.


(c)  to examine areas where there might be a consensus for change in the existing principles and institutions guiding international relations


Anticipated output


 The Study Group will begin with a consideration of the responses to the recent CSCAP survey initiated by CSCAP Japan – a survey that sought to identify the different ways in which “RBO” is understood by the various member countries of CSCAP.


The issues the Study Group could then be expected to address will include the following:


  1. Why has the international community evolved packages of guidelines and rules to govern the behaviour of states in arenas beyond their sovereign control?
  1. How useful is the concept of RBO to describe these norms, principles, guidelines, rules? What is implied – in terms of scope and dimensions – by RBO? Is the label “RBO” itself controversial and perhaps counterproductive?
  1. Is it possible to break down the RBO into major components or characteristics and to describe how these features evolved?
  1. To what extent is there agreement regarding the norms, principles, guidelines and rules which ought to guide international behaviour? Which of these elements appear to be the source of political controversy?
  1. How should we approach the development of such guidelines for new technological arenas? 
  1. What general guidelines emerge from this enquiry that would facilitate constructive international management of this issue?     


How does this proposed study group differ from previous studies undertaken by CSCAP in the past?

Previous CSCAP Study Groups do not cover on these issues.




Start: September, 2019 | End: December 2020

Download the study group proposal.