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International order with Chinese characteristics

By Douglas de Castro | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-04-06 09:50


The international system is a political structure in which sovereign states operate. Therefore, all the states are equal in the legal sense, regardless of their economic, political, natural resources, or military capabilities, which makes the structure of the international system horizontal without a supranational entity with supra-sovereignty over them. In other words, the states operate in a Hobbesian state of nature in which homo homni lupus, the man is wolf to man, or in this specific case, the state is the wolf of state in which the commitment of violent acts for survival is possible and expected.
Thus, the great challenge in the international system is to find mechanisms to sustain a minimum form of order in which states and their population might live and thrive without the constant fear (real or perceived) of being overpowered and attacked by another state.

With that in mind, two mechanisms have been central for maintaining a minimum of stability in the international system: the balance of power and International Law.

In the balance of power, there is a balance of forces between states or a group of states that stabilizes the international system. A contemporaneous example of the balance of power is the Cold War, in which the world was divided between the United States and the former Soviet Union, representing their respective ideologies (with a third group of countries declaring non-alignment). Despite (or in spite) of the nuclear threat, this was considered a period of great stability in the world in terms of interstate conflicts).

The balance of power is unstable by nature, as it depends on the internal political forces of the states and the pressures that the system itself places on them, making them feel more or less secure. The rise of the United States as a hegemonic power in the 1990s did not confirm Francis Fukuyama's thesis of the end of history, which would herald an era of prosperity and peace due to the prevalence of liberal institutions. Some states in the international system kept their pursuit of maximizing power and taking advantage in zero-sum games.

On the other hand, and complementary to the balance of power is International Law as an institution to sustain international order by the principle of the rule of law. Furthermore, the proliferation of multilateral institutions in the post-World War II facilitates the occurrence of forums for debates of the international agenda with the scope of making the information and debates more transparent, providing the formation of pockets of resistance and alignment of the states against advances by the powerful ones and the construction of international rules embedded with important values for humankind.

However, in times of international crisis, the effectiveness of International Law and multilateral institutions are questioned. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, or the conflict Russia-Ukraine pose challenges to the capacity of the Rule of Law to present better results. This is not a problem only for International Law but for the modernist project in which reason was deemed the salvation of humankind from medieval/metaphysical traditions that were holding back progress and happiness.

The standing of some states regarding the importance of the balance of power and International Law as tools to bring more stability and security to world affairs reminds the obscure and tortuous parable in the Before the Law written by Franz Kafka. The countrymen get in front of the gate representing the law, and the doorman does not allow him to enter for several years. After several attempts to enter over the years, the now very old countrymen realize that no other person has asked the doorman to enter the law. He questions the doorman about this fact and gets the answer: "This entrance is just for you!". The entrance of International Law is there, available "just for you," but for any reason, some states do not ask the right question.

By no means a nihilistic approach is advocated here. However, a series of questions need to be raised to seek alternatives to make either the balance of power or International Law more efficient. The search for incorporating ideas and values into the world agenda is urgent for calibrating the efficiency of the order mechanisms, making them more inclusive and stable.

Part of the answer lies in the rise of China as an essential agent in the international system, which, while causing discomfort and false perceptions, points to a worldview that is worth a better understanding.

As China continues to grow in material power and win-win cooperation processes, the country increases its ability to demonstrate alternatives to the world order and institutions as emerged after the Second World War.

What most analysts miss is precisely the construction of international relations based on the experiences built by China and other countries in the Global South in their encounter with the great Western powers. This factor is demonstrated empirically in most studies on the relations between China and Latin America or Africa, for instance. China's approach is not a zero-sum game in which one must lose for the other to win, but the search for cooperation processes that can reflect the win-win model associated with the precepts of Confucianism and other thinkers in Chinese philosophy.

As President Xi Jinping said: "We should do away with the zero-sum game and win-or-lose mentality, establish a new concept of win-win and all-win, and care for other's interests while seeking one's own interest and promote common development while seeking one's own development."

There are several examples of this approach ranging from climate change to biodiversity, trade agreements to unconditional financing to developing countries, and sustainable development to the green Belt Road Initiative. However, a vivid and recent example of this argument can be provided in the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. By maintaining the position in defense of the UN negotiations and the non-application of unilateral sanctions by the countries, China has qualified itself as a potential mediator for a negotiated solution to the humanitarian crisis that the conflict is causing, while other countries press for their national interest.

Returning to the parable of Franz Kafka, China is not waiting for entering the gates of International Law. The country has already passed the doorman!

The author is a professor of International Law at the School of Law, Lanzhou University.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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