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Leading to a New Normative Order – China's Approach Towards International Law


The establishment of International Law as a regulatory framework for interstate relations has coincided with human history's political development, whereas the term "Public International Law" was coined several centuries ago. Different countries, on the other hand, may hold differing viewpoints on the interstate ties and international order that are at the heart of International Law. In comparison to the jurisprudence of most industrialized countries, the People's Republic of China (PRC) legal system, including international standards and legal theories, is viewed as an area that can be improved and pruned by learning from the former. Nonetheless, the situation has evolved considerably in recent decades, and it is useful to consider how China views the system, status, and purposes of international law from both a theoretical and practical standpoint.


China's limited engagement with international law during these two decades following the Advent of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 was greatly inspired by Soviet practice and Marxist doctrines of proletarian internationalism. Chinese officials condemned International law for "mainly preserving the interests of colonial and imperialist countries to the detriment of most developing states and peoples," despite their broad acceptance of international law and institutions in principle. Chinese leaders have openly opposed the idea of a single universal international law binding all states, even advocating the creation of a parallel international body to rival the United Nations, from which the PRC was barred until 1971. Following the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, China progressively joined more than 300 multilateral treaties and 130 international organizations during the "opening and reform" phase that began in 1978. China's domestic legal system incorporates a range of international business law regimes. This allowed Chinese domestic courts to begin adopting international legal principles governing private-party relationships, boosting China's economic growth and eventually increasing foreign confidence in trade and investment with the country. In the run-up to its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, Beijing enacted a slew of domestic law reforms. Substantive treaty obligations often become relevant in domestic law only through particular provisions of national legislation under the Chinese system, as in many other jurisdictions. China ratified a number of international human rights treaties after 1978, but unlike the commercial treaties mentioned above, they were not incorporated into its domestic legal system in a way that Chinese judges could use to restrain governmental power.

China's Positivism vis a vis International Law

Positivism in International Law allows for the inspiration of the Eurocentric history of international law, as well as the concealment of these biases, in order to maintain the effectiveness, legitimacy, and dominance of the current Western-dominated international legal system and global governance paradigms. As a result, ideological and structural biases are woven into international law positivism and maintained by Eurocentric narratives of international law history; international law has never reported or responded apolitically to the reality of global society. International law and international legal scholarship become more artificial rhetoric linked to power, interests, and politics if the much-acclaimed field of international law, standardization and positivism in international law, fail to accurately reflect or respond to the realities of international life. The degree to which China complies with international law and exerts influence over it are both complex and contentious issues. The interpretation of international legal rules can be ambiguous, illusory, and subject to interpretation. China, like other powerful nations, may refuse to follow the law if it serves its perceived interests. Nonetheless, China is concerned about international law. It has the potential to be a weapon for achieving goals, a source of legitimacy or delegitimization, and an integral part of China's interests. China is actively attempting to shape legal standards on a variety of topics, and officials in the United States should be aware of this.

The Ascent of China and the Growing Aspirations of International Law

International laws passed and current evolution are intertwined into the same narratives, discourse, knowledge, language, and culture of international law, global governance, and international legal studies. In a globalized but still decentralized world society, international law is used to identify and rename, mythicize and re-mythicize, in law and outlaw, thus satisfying diverse economic and political goals. And, in terms of both lofty aspirations and dark edges, the growth of China's approaches to international law since the Opium War has gone hand in hand with the evolution of Western-dominated international law. The basic notion of international cooperation and competition in today's Western-dominated international law is "interest," while other concepts and aspects (such as justice and morality) are ignored in the positivism of international law. The legal positivism school assumes that international law, as a normative vision of world society and a normative language for international discourses, can report the reality of world society apolitically, when it can't because of ideological and structural biases in international law and international legal expertise.

Positivism's consequences in international law include the separation of law from reality, the removal of politics from law, and the final transformation of law into a weapon at the service of interests. In the context of International Law, Positivism overlooks the reality of global society and the development of international law within it, disguising imperialism's ideological and structural biases as well as other parts of international law's Eurocentric origins. Given the dynamic character of national and global politics, as well as the role played by growing powers such as India, it remains to be seen whether China will affect the future trajectory of international law.

China's vision for the International Legal Order in the Future

China's history of colonialism and imperialism had previously made her a wary participant in international law. Concerns about state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic issues inspired her reaction to pre-established, traditional international law principles. On the other hand, it is keen to participate in the creation of newer and emerging sectors of international law in order to assist realize her vision for the global legal order and to create room for the preservation of her own national and political interests. A leadership vacuum has emerged as the United States' engagement with the rules-based international order has waned. Given China's growing status as a global power, it may successfully fill this void and use her position to change current international rules and shape new ones in accordance with her own vision of the International Legal Order.

The consequences of such a course for international law are numerous. Simply because, it may aid in the retreat of "liberal interventionism" by Western countries, ostensibly in the name of human rights protection. While on the contrary, it may reduce international monitoring of domestic human rights abuses, contributing to the perpetuation of crises such as the Rohingya refugee crisis. International law, despite its flaws, has contributed to the creation of a world regulated by rules and norms, making the global order more predictable and less chaotic


Due to the frequency of everyday transactions, China is rapidly expanding and developing, particularly in international economic, commercial, and trade fields. It is hard to avoid trading goods and services with other countries and, as a result, the shared norms that regulate such activity. It is quite difficult to expect China to shift its positions on matters that it classifies as "political," which are strongly based on the defence of the old ideology of state sovereignty. While international law evolves as a result of globalization and harmonization, the current Chinese administration has established a stronghold on its role in reforming the international legal order in a new era by "stepping into the centre of the world" through China's accession to the WTO, which has drastically altered China's traditional view of international law. In the coming decade, it will be interesting to watch whether and to what degree these changes will result in opportunities, problems, or conflicts in the international legal order. Despite the fact that China has mostly transformed into a contemporary nation-state, as understood by most Western social scientists, one should not expect China to abandon its old cultural heritage. China is unlikely to gain a technical understanding of Western legal structures and procedures, especially those that establish individual rights and responsibilities. China's goal of international peace will be pursued within the limitations of its moralistic self-righteousness and national self-interest, which is no different than the motivations of Western powers. In other words, China will not give up its political and ideological perspectives in order to accept the Western international nation-state system without significant changes." As a result, China will remain a hostile player in the Western system, rejecting Western diplomacy's myths and rhetoric unless it is allowed to join on an equal footing. This is not to argue that China will resist Western Fundamental Principles of International Law.

(Aditya Mehrotra is a 2nd Year, BA LL.B (Hons.) student and is interested in Foreign Policy and Public International Law).

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