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Asian Conceptions of International Order: What Asia Wants

Authors: Kanti Bajpai, Evan A Laksmana

Affiliation: Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: July 4, 2023/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 11


Keywords: Liberal Internationalism, International Norms, Institutions.


The concept of international order plays a significant role in the realm of international relations as it defines the norms and institutions that govern state interactions. Understanding how Asian states perceive the current Liberal International Order (LIO) is of great interest, as it reveals both shared and nuanced differences in viewpoints. The LIO refers to the prevailing set of norms and institutions that govern state-to-state relations, encompassing both formal and informal rules and international organizations. This framework operates at various levels, from global to regional and sub-regional, creating a complex landscape of interaction. It pertains to the norms and institutions that govern state survival and conflict management, reflecting the prevailing emphasis in Asian international and strategic thought on security concerns associated with national survival and inter-state rivalry.


In Asia, perception of the international order is multifaceted, featuring diverse perspectives and preferences that demonstrate both convergence and divergence. Examining how Asian countries view liberal democracy, the role of the US alliance, and their desires for inclusivity and norm-shaping offers insights into the complex landscape of international order in the region. In Asia, the prevailing international order is characterized as liberal internationalism, which emphasizes relations between sovereign states as the primary actors in the international arena. Despite Japan and South Korea’s alignment with this notion, they do not fully endorse liberal democracy as the exclusive basis for constructing the international order. They recognize the importance of preserving the primacy of the state over other potential organizing principles such as civilizations or empires. However, they still value liberal democracy and its principles. When it comes to the US alliance system, Japan and South Korea are more accepting, considering alliance with the United States as a legitimate and vital security cornerstone, despite occasional policy differences.


On the other hand, countries like the Philippines and Thailand, who are formal US allies, demonstrate ambivalence despite their occasional affirmation of the alliance, often balancing their relationship with the US as China’s influence grows. Meanwhile, countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam maintain strong defense ties with the US without pursuing formal alliances. Despite mixed sentiments, these states recognize the stabilizing security role of the US while expressing discomfort over certain American comments on human rights and democracy. It is important to note that while Asian states generally support the key tenets of the international order, including independence, equality, and the rule of law, they also perceive Western powers as often violating these principles in practice. This discrepancy raises questions about the current operation of the international order and its exclusivity. Japan stands out as a key actor in shaping the international order in Asia, as it has introduced a number of initiatives that reflect its comprehensive and human security visions. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) exemplifies Japan’s engagement, although it emphasizes inclusivity, as demonstrated by its participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Similarly, South Korea seeks to broaden the existing liberal international order through extensive engagement and alignment with Japan’s preference for a more inclusive approach.


Southeast Asia, represented by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), brings a unique perspective to the discussion of international order in Asia. It emphasizes “ASEAN centrality” and the “ASEAN way,” advocating for inclusivity, informality, and continuous dialogue as alternatives to traditional great power interactions. ASEAN’s norms, institutions, and practices offer an alternative “operating system” for managing international order, positioning ASEAN as a mediatory voice in the region. The aspirations of Indonesia, India, and China introduce a third pattern of voice. These countries desire recognition as key stakeholders in global institutions and seek to transition from “norm takers” to “norm shapers.” Their rising influence and assertiveness reflect the changing dynamics of the global stage. As the global and regional landscape becomes increasingly complex, the limitations of the prevailing liberal international order come to the forefront. Calls for a more pluralistic model of governance arise in response to the dysfunctionality of the existing order, which emphasize the need for adaptability and inclusiveness in international structures.


Asian countries prefer the term “rules-based international order” over “liberal international order” due to the latter’s ideological connotations. While they have mixed feelings towards US military alliances, they prefer that allied nations manage their partnerships privately, avoiding public criticism and the rigidity reminiscent of the Cold War era. Asian nations uniformly seek a voice in the construction and maintenance of the international order, underscoring their contributions to its formation. Rejecting the notion that the current international order is solely a Western gift, these countries assert their relevance and perspectives in shaping the global landscape. Given Asia’s ascent as a global force, comprehending how its resident powers perceive international order holds significance for policymakers worldwide. The concept of international order is not a product of Western powers alone. Instead, it reflects a dynamic interplay of diverse perspectives and priorities, contributing to the evolving global governance structure.


In conclusion, Asian countries’ nuanced conceptions of international order embody both convergence and divergence. The tension between principles and practices in the international order helps explain how Asian states view the prevailing norms and institutions that shape the global landscape. The extent of modification to the current international order remains multifaceted. Asian states, aware of the shortcomings of the international order, call for more pluralistic governance to address the complexities of global crises. While there is no unanimous demand for a radical overhaul, the desire for more inclusive structures, particularly in global institutions, consistently emerges. The intricate interplay of views on liberal democracy, US alliance, norm-shaping, and the search for inclusive governance highlights the complexity of the region’s stance on global affairs. The emphasis on the international security order underscores the paramount significance of security concerns in shaping Asian international thought. As the world’s geopolitical center of gravity shifts, understanding Asia’s stance on international order becomes increasingly crucial for global policymakers.

By: Omar Fili, CIGA Research Assistant



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