Engage China to Uphold Multilateralism – But Not at Any Cost

Where China’s interests align with those of the international community, there are opportunities for the country’s influence and economic power to strengthen the rules-based international order. Where they do not, states that traditionally support that order should join together to push back.

Expert comment
Published 12 June 2019 Updated 25 August 2021 6 minute READ
Students holding Chinese national flags watch the live broadcast of the 40th anniversary celebration of China's reform and opening-up at Huaibei Normal University on 18 December. Photo: Getty Images.

Students holding Chinese national flags watch the live broadcast of the 40th anniversary celebration of China’s reform and opening-up at Huaibei Normal University on 18 December. Photo: Getty Images.

China’s adherence to the rules-based international system is selective, prioritizing certain rules in favour of others. States supportive of that ‘system’ – or, as some argue, systems [1] – should identify areas of mutual strategic interest so that they can draw China further into the global rules-based order and leverage China as a constructive player that potentially also contributes to improvements in such areas. This is particularly apposite at a time when the US is in retreat from multilateralism and Russia seems bent on disrupting the rules-based international order.

Supportive player

There are many reasons for actively engaging with China on mutual areas of interest. China is a committed multilateralist in many areas, recognizing that often international cooperation and frameworks hold the key to its domestic problems, for example in the fields of environmental sustainability and financial regulation.

China’s economic power is valuable in upholding international institutions: China is the UN’s third-largest donor (after the US and Japan) at a time when the UN is facing budgetary shortfalls. China is also the second-highest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget, and the largest contributor of peacekeeping forces among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

China also has a valuable role to play in the settlement of international disputes over trade and investment. China is a big supporter of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s dispute settlement mechanism, and one of its most active participants;[2] China is currently playing an active role in negotiations to save the WTO’s appellate mechanism from folding in the wake of the US’s refusal to nominate new judges.

The last 15 years have also seen a major shift in Chinese attitudes to investment arbitration, from a general suspicion and limitation of arbitration rights to broad acceptance and incorporation of such rights in China’s trade and investment treaties. China is actively engaged in multilateral negotiations through the UN Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) on reforms to investor–state dispute settlement.

China has shown leadership on global climate change diplomacy, urging nations to remain committed to the Paris Agreement in the wake of the US decision to pull out, and has been an important interlocutor with the UK and the EU on these issues. As a strong supporter of the Paris Agreement, but also as the world’s top emitter of carbon dioxide, China has a crucial role to play in pushing forward implementation of the Paris targets. Despite its high emissions, China remains one of the few major economies on track to meet its targets,[3] giving it greater leverage to peer review other parties’ efforts.

A recent report by the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), on China and the rules-based international order, noted that where a body of trust and goodwill is developed with China, there is the possibility of discovering interests that coincide and the ability to work together on issues mutually regarded as of global importance. The report refers to a number of success stories from UK partnership with China in multilateral forums, including in counterproliferation and global health.[4]

Developing areas of global governance

As well as working with the current system, China is increasingly involved in the shaping of newer areas of international law – whether it be submissions to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on procedural rules for the emerging deep-sea mining regime or pitching for a greater role in Arctic governance.[5]

This enthusiasm should be harnessed to promote the international rule of law, but at the same time there needs to be recognition of the strategic goals that drive China’s engagement. China’s interest in the Arctic, while including the desire to protect its ecology and environment, is also about access to marine resources, as well as about the Arctic’s strategic potential for China’s military.

China’s submissions to ITLOS on the rules of procedure for deep-sea mining are constructive, but also reflect an ambition to secure first-mover advantage when commercial mining eventually takes place. Like other major powers working in this policy area, China’s actions are guided by self-interest, but that doesn’t mean its goals can’t be pursued through multilateral rules.

China is also interested in creating new international structures and instruments that further its strategic aims. For example, with Russia (through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) it has proposed an International Code of Conduct for Information Security in the UN.[6]

China is also pondering an array of options for dispute-resolution mechanisms for its Belt and Road projects, including the possibility of an Asian version of the international Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes, which might sit under the auspices of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).[7]

The creation of new instruments and institutions need not be a threat to the rules-based international order in itself. We have already seen a combination of the creation of parallel complementary regimes alongside the reform of existing institutions, for example in development financing through the AIIB or the New Development Bank (often referred to as the ‘BRICS Bank’); these two banks are relatively conventionally structured along the lines of Western-dominated institutions, albeit with greater Chinese control. Based on these examples, selective adaptation seems more likely than a hostile ‘Eastphalian’ takeover.[8]


There is, however, a real risk that in certain areas China may promote a rival authoritarian model of governance, assisted by an opportunistic convergence with Russia on issues such as human rights, development and internet governance. In areas where China’s core interests clash with those of the rules-based international order, China has shown itself to be unbending, as in its refusal to abide by the July 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in its dispute with the Philippines over the South China Sea.[9]

China is becoming more assertive at the UN, but while it seeks to project itself there as a responsible emerging global leader, it is promoting a vision that weakens international norms of human rights, transparency and accountability,[10] while also carrying out practices domestically that raise serious human rights concerns (not least the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang).[11]

China’s increased dominance geographically and geopolitically through its Belt and Road infrastructure projects carries with it a number of social and economic risks, including smaller states becoming trapped in unsustainable financial debts to China.

But at a recent Chatham House conference on Asia and international law, participants highlighted the limitations on how far China can shape an alternative governance model.[12] China currently lacks soft power, cultural power and language power, all of which are needed in order to embed an alternative model abroad. China also currently lacks capacity and confidence to build coalitions with other states in the UN.

Where it has tried to get buy-in from the international community for its new institutions, such as the China International Commercial Court (CICC) announced in July 2018, there has been scepticism about the standards to be applied.[13] Unless the court can demonstrate sufficient due process, international parties are likely to prefer other centres with a strong reputation for upholding the rule of law, such as those in London, Dubai and Singapore.

Where China does promote its own governance model at the expense of the rules-based international order, states are starting to push back, often in concert. EU member states so far have adopted a joined-up approach to the Belt and Road Initiative. With the exception of Italy, they have refused to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on participation unless China provides much greater transparency on its compliance with international standards.

The EU also recently presented a coordinated response to China on the situation in Xinjiang.[14] Similarly, members of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance (comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) have acted together in relation to certain incidents of cyber interference attributed to China.[15]

There are also signs of pushback from smaller states closer to home in relation to challenges to national sovereignty, debt diplomacy and financial viability arising from Belt and Road projects. The Sri Lankan government recently reversed the award of a $300 million housing deal to China, instead opting for a joint venture with an Indian company.

China has been downscaling its investments as a way to counter some of the backlash it has received: the most recent Belt and Road summit put forward a more modest set of aspirations. This suggests that there is some scope for states to stand up to China and use leverage to secure better deals.

Many international institutions have been Western-dominated for years;[16] China, together with many emerging and middle powers, has felt for some time that the international architecture does not reflect the world we live in. Given that context, states that champion the rules-based international order should acknowledge China’s desire to update the international order to reflect greater multipolarity, globalization and technological change, while being clear-eyed about their engagement with China. This involves investing in a proper understanding of China and how it works.[17]

Where possible, cooperation with China should lead to outcomes that are backed up by international standards and transparency. The above-mentioned FAC report cites evidence that the UK’s support, and that of other developed countries, had a positive impact in shaping the governance and standards of the AIIB.[18] China has brought in international experts to advise on disputes before the CIIC, which may reassure would-be litigants.

China’s relationship with the rules-based international order needs to be assessed pragmatically and dynamically. China can be a valuable partner in many areas where its objectives are closely aligned with those of the international community – from trade to climate change to peacekeeping.

But where the country’s core interests are at odds with those of the wider international community, an increasingly confident China will strongly resist pressure, including on the South China Sea and human rights. In these areas, states supportive of international law can most powerfully push back through alliances and by ensuring that their own core values are not compromised in the interests of economic benefits.

What needs to happen

  • China’s rising power and selective commitment to multilateralism make it a potentially influential ally in modernizing international governance.
  • China is increasingly involved in shaping newer areas of international law. This enthusiasm could be harnessed in the service of institutional development and reform.
  • Other states should identify areas of mutual strategic interest where China may offer a constructive role, including dispute settlement, health and climate change.
  • However, engagement must not ignore the strategic calculations that drive China’s agenda, or its poor record on civil and political rights, transparency and accountability.
  • Cooperation with China should lead to outcomes that are backed up by international standards and transparency.
  • Where China’s actions undermine the rules-based international order, coordinated action by states supportive of that order is likely to be more effective than acting individually.


[1] Chalmers, M. (2019), Which Rules? Why There is No Single ‘Rules-Based International System’, RUSI Occasional Paper, April 2019, London: Royal United Services Institute.

[2] See, for example, Moynihan, H. (2017), China’s Evolving Approach to International Dispute Settlement, Briefing, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/chinas-evolving-approach-inter….

[3] UN Environment (2018), Emissions Gap Report 2018, p. XVII, https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2018.

[4] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (2019), China and the Rules-Based International System: Sixteenth Report of Session 2017–19, p. 32, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmfaff/612/612….

[5] Moynihan, H. (2018), ‘China Expands Its Global Governance Ambitions in the Arctic’, Expert Comment, 15 October 2018, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/china-expands-its-global-go….

[6] Updated version proposed 9 January 2015.

[7] Moynihan, H. (2018), ‘Exploring Public International Law Issues with Chinese Scholars – Part Four’, Meeting Summary, 3 June 2018, https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/exploring-public-international….

[8] Chatham House (2019, forthcoming, ‘Security and Prosperity in the Asia-Pacific: The Role of International Law’, conference summary, https://www.chathamhouse.org/event/security-and-prosperity-asia-pacific….

[9] Permanent Court of Arbitration Case No. 2013-19 (Philippines v China), Award of 12 July 2016, https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2016/07/PH-CN-20160712-A….

[10] Piccone, T. (2018), China’s Long Game on Human Rights at the United Nations, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/FP_20181009_china_….

[11] Wye, R. (2018), ‘‘The entire Uyghur population is seemingly being treated as suspect’: China’s persecution of its Muslim minority’, LSE Religion and Global Society blog, 18 September 2018, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2018/09/the-entire-uyghur….

[12] Chatham House (2019, forthcoming, ‘Security and Prosperity in the Asia-Pacific: The Role of International Law’.

[13] Walters, M. (2018), ‘Jury is out over China’s new commercial court, say lawyers’, Law Society Gazette, 1 November 2018, https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/jury-is-out-over-chinas-new-commercial….

[14] The Economist (2019), ‘Hope remains for Western solidarity. Look at embassies in Beijing’, 17 April 2019, https://www.economist.com/china/2019/04/20/hope-remains-for-western-sol….

[15] In December 2018, the Five Eyes attributed the activities of a Chinese cyber espionage group targeting intellectual property and sensitive commercial property to China’s Ministry of State Security.

[16] Roberts, A. (2017), Is International Law International?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[17] Parton, C. (2019), China–UK Relations: Where to Draw the Border Between Influence and Interference?, RUSI Occasional Paper, February 2019, London: Royal United Services Institute, p. 30, https://rusi.org/publication/occasional-papers/china-uk-relations-where-draw-border-between-influence-and.

[18] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (2019), China and the Rules-Based International System, p. 15.

This essay was produced for the 2019 edition of Chatham House Expert Perspectives – our annual survey of risks and opportunities in global affairs – in which our researchers identify areas where the current sets of rules, institutions and mechanisms for peaceful international cooperation are falling short, and present ideas for reform and modernization.