Controlling the Narrative and International Order in the South China Sea
In recent years, “rules based order” has emerged as a talking point in policy-oriented conversations about the future of the international system, particularly in respect to the rise of China and decline of the US. While many observers and statespersons make calls for “rules based order,” this awkward-sounding neologism has not yet been a subject of serious scholarly attention. To address this gap, this paper focuses on the notion of “rules based order” in the South China Sea, where China’s behavior is widely regarded as an important indicator of whether this “rising” power will uphold the existing rules of the game or re-shape them in its own image. The paper begins by considering the extent to which language, discourse and strategic narratives are integral elements of the mechanics by international order it is transformed, followed by an examination of the varied sets of meanings ascribed to “rules based order” in the context of China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. The paper concludes that although the term “rules based order” may have been introduced with the intention of sustaining the status quo, its very emergence reflects the extent to which change in the prevailing international order is already underway. By closely considering the constitutive power of language, this paper sheds new light on the extent to which control over narratives is central to the fate of international order.