Equilibrium & Fragmentation in the International Rule of Law: The Rising Chinese Geolegal Order
KFG Working Paper Series, No. 21, Berlin Potsdam Research Group “The International Rule of Law – Rise or Decline?”
39 Pages Posted: 6 Dec 2018
Date Written: November 2018
Seeming consensus has formed among legal scholars and practitioners that a rising China seeks changes in rules and institutions of international law. Yet, attendant accounts of how such changes may and already do restructure global legal order remain relatively underdeveloped. An observed rise in the international rule of law during immediate post-Cold War years has now been disrupted by a confluence of regional shifts in geopolitical power and contestation of law’s normative foundations by newly empowered states. In these circumstances, advocates for stability and continuity in variations of the “liberal international order” or “rules-based order” have sought to defend the authority and resilience of universally defined international legal norms against various regional challenges to the boundary between law and politics. Yet, as both global power and universal conceptions of law fragment, so too will the presumed equilibrium between international law’s political and normative foundations. Signs of fragmentation are now conspicuously playing out in East and Southeast Asia, where the relative rise of China is amplified by alternative Chinese conceptions of foundations and purposes of global legal order. This working paper introduces the concept of “geolegal power” to describe the competitive logic of a territorially bounded leading state restructuring interpretation and development of legal rules and institutions, which is emerging more explicitly within regional subsystems. Fragmentation of the international rule of law by a rising Chinese “geolegal order” is demonstrated by contested maritime rules in three key areas: freedom of navigation; third-party and judicial settlement; and, territorial claims under UNCLOS. Evidence that China is carving out an effective subsystem of rules designated as “law” in the most consequential of security and geopolitical domains poses a critical challenge to the structure of a unified and universal system of international law. Legal scholars and practitioners must better grasp reconfiguring foundations of international law in order to address rising orders of “geolegal power”, in which the regional meaning and operation of law is no longer reconcilable within the terms of an “international” rule of law.
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