Rod Wye
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme
China is looking to increase its capacity and influence in international legal matters – and it is particularly in frontier areas of the law that China is likely to take a proactive stance.
Xi Jinping at the UN European headquarters in Geneva. Photo: Getty Images.Xi Jinping at the UN European headquarters in Geneva. Photo: Getty Images.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi called China a staunch defender and builder of the international rule of law in his speech to the UN General Assembly in October 2014. He promised that as China grew stronger, it would make a greater contribution to the maintenance and promotion of international rule of law, and would work with other countries to build a fairer and more reasonable international political and economic order.

For many in China, that time has now come: there is a sense that China deserves a much stronger and more respected voice in discussions surrounding the future of the international system. The recent speeches of Xi Jinping in Davos and Geneva in January 2017 suggest that China is now seizing  the initiative and fighting for a voice and influence commensurate with its status and power as the number two economy in the world.

But there is an interesting divide in the areas in which China chooses to assert itself. In traditional areas of international law – such as the law of the sea and international human rights law – China continues to harbour reservations about the fairness of the existing international order. Its misgivings are fuelled by a perception that it did not play a significant part in the creation of the post-Second World War international order, and that those rules operate mainly in the interests of Western powers.

There is also a sense that traditional areas of international law do not offer a level playing field for China, since Western states have far more experience at operating in those. We know from Chinese experts that in the South China Sea case, one background issue that played into China’s refusal to engage in litigation with the Philippines and other interested states (which were represented by leading Western international lawyers) was a lack of experience before international courts and tribunals.

Contrast this with newer areas of international law– such as the regimes governing cyber, space, climate change and deep sea mining issues. In these areas, the rules are still in the process of being developed and tested, and the influence of the existing powers is not so firmly established or accepted, so there is more opportunity for China’s voice to be heard and heeded.

On climate change, China has become a champion of the Paris Agreement, which it worked hard with the Obama administration to secure. China is also active in some of the processes related to cyber rule-making, both as a member of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on cyber issues and through bilateral dialogues with a number of states. China has taken a keen interest in the regime applicable to the mining of the international seabed, making submissions to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea about the procedure for settling disputes. In international economic law, another relatively new area, China has been assiduously cultivating expertise, and is a major player in the negotiation of the ‘mega regional’ trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.   

In time, the development of China’s much heralded Belt and Road Initiative may provide an opportunity for China to be further involved in international norm-setting, through the creation of a system of economic and political interaction that is built and run more along Chinese determined lines. The emergence of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank may offer an early indicator of China’s attempts to shape global governance, although in this context China has so far scrupulously observed international standards and has made no open attempt to challenge them.

So far, China’s practical input to international norm-setting has been limited.  While China is prone to making wide-ranging statements of principle, it finds it more challenging to engage in the nitty gritty of specific rule making. But as is clear from its membership of the WTO, China can adapt quickly. While initially it was a reluctant adherent to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism, China is now adept at making active and effective use of its rules to promote China’s interests, including launching a legal challenge regarding the contested issue of its non-market economy status. Overall, there is strong leadership backing for a more activist approach to its engagement with the international legal system. 

China sees international law as an important instrument in the “toolbox” of international diplomacy. It will increasingly be seeking to leverage international law to promote its own interests, particularly in newer areas, as it seeks to strengthen its wider soft power and influence.

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