China’s degree of compliance with and influence over international law are complex and contested subjects. The meaning of international legal rules can be vague, illusory, and open to dispute. Like other powerful nations, China may refuse to comply with the law when doing so suits its perceived interests. Nonetheless, international law matters to China. It can be a tool for accomplishing objectives, a source of legitimation or delegitimation, and a constitutive element of China’s interests. China is actively pushing to shape legal norms across a range of issues, and U.S. policymakers should take note.
This paper briefly reviews China’s recent history of engagement with international law and its mixed record in several contemporary issue areas: trade, maritime and territorial disputes, Hong Kong, human rights, climate change, and the emerging spheres of cybersecurity and autonomous weapons. I offer three tentative conclusions.
First, China exhibits a flexible and functional approach to international law that enables it to benefit from and exploit the international order without the need to advocate fundamental changes to the letter of the law in most areas. Second, China is increasingly seeking to shape legal norms across various domains of international relations. Third, despite its malleability and limitations, international law can also shape the context for the choices of Chinese leaders and their perceptions of their interests.
These conclusions highlight the need to strengthen systems of international rules in order to better manage increasing competition and multipolarity among nations. In response to the China challenge, the United States, in concert with allies and partners, should reengage clear-eyed with international law in an effort to shape rules that are more robust and more effectively enforced in the coming era — however difficult that may be.