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.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.