17 Jan Asia, International Law and International Institutions: A Comment
[B.S. Chimni is Professor of International Law at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.This post is part of a joint Opinio Juris/EJIL:Talk! symposium. For the latest symposium post on EJIL:Talk!, click here.]
In the current issue of European Journal of International Law Professor Simon Chesterman has written an important essay on the Asian approach to international law and international institutions, addressing in particular the subject of its under-representation and under-participation. He has also explored therein the possible convergence of the Asian view of international law and institutions with that of other regions of the world. In what follows a few general reflections are offered on these themes.
In considering the question of a distinctive Asian approach to international law and institutions it is important to avoid above all the three pitfalls of cultural essentialism, geographical determinism, and materialist reductionism. On the cultural plane Asia represents a complex configuration of diverse and multiple cultures and untold interpretations of it. It is also shaped by millennia of interaction with other geographical regions of the world, lending and borrowing ideas. In fact the very idea of “Asia” is a product of that relationship. Therefore it would be erroneous to argue that cultural or geographical factors by themselves shape the attitudes of Asian States. The Asian approach is also mediated by deep material structures that include global capitalism and the sovereign state system. It has been especially impacted by colonialism whose lasting contribution includes the embrace of Westphalian logic and the transformation of the legal systems of many Asian nations. The political ecology of the times, constituted by historical developments like the October Revolution and the Cold War, have had their own role to play in shaping the response of Asian nations to international law and institutions. Besides these factors the national interests of individual Asian nations, determined by a range of internal factors, have a direct bearing on the question. In view of these complexities Professor Chesterman has wisely attempted to strike a balance between offering cultural, material, geographical, and historical explanations for understanding the state of representation and participation of Asia in international law and institutions. However, while he does well to avoid ‘the risk of gross generalizations’ and to accept that ‘states choose whether to participate in particular international regimes for a wide variety of reasons’ the range of factors indicated could have received more consideration.
A growing international relations literature is today grappling with the question whether there is a distinctive Asian approach to world politics. These can be sampled in collections like International Relations of Asia and the Oxford Handbook of the International Relations of Asia. This literature raises among other things the question whether standard western international relations theories allow us to capture the essential features of the Asian approach to international relations. For instance, does the realist approach help us explain Asian international relations? Or can a combination of realist and constructivist approaches, with the latter placing emphasis on ideational factors, help produce a viable explanation of Asian international relations? Or is a uniquely Asian theory needed to explain its international relations? I believe that this international relations literature can be productively mined to deepen thinking on the Asian lack of engagement with international law and international institutions.
Be that as it may, in attempting to understand the relative under engagement of Asia with international law Professor Chesterman rightly recognizes that the signing of treaties is a crude measure of its commitment to progressive normative developments and international rule of law. A good example is the Asian approach to the legal status and rights of refugees. While Asia has hosted millions of refugees only few Asian states (Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Japan, Philippines, Korea, and Japan) have ratified the 1951 UN Convention on Status of Refugees. A whole range of historical, material and cultural factors possibly account for Asian nations refusing to become party to the 1951 Convention even as they have shown willingness to respect the status and rights of refugees. These factors may be worth studying in a bid to understand and explain the Asian approach to international law. It may also help to identify the reasons for the lack of a regional human rights convention on the lines that have been adopted in Africa, Europe, and Latin America.
What however explains the absence of a regional organization in Asia? The factors of diversity, plurality, and power disparities in the region have been aptly viewed by Professor Chesterman as crucial in this regard. There is however the historical factor as well. As Jawaharlal Nehru observed at the Asian relations Conference (1947), “a notable consequence” of the European domination of Asia was the isolation of its nations from one another. Consequently, the Bandung Communique (1955) called upon countries to ‘the acquisition of knowledge of each other’s country, mutual cultural exchange, and exchange of information’. Subsequently, the Cold War created its own divides. Amitav Acharya, a leading international relations expert on the Asian region and regionalism, offers another explanation (.pdf). He speaks of the decoupling of material capability and legitimacy among leading Asian nations as an important reason for absence of a regional organization. Thus, Japan has the capability to lead the way but lacks legitimacy for having been a colonial power. China on the other hand lacks legitimacy because of the absence of internal democracy. India has legitimacy but not as yet the material wherewithal to lead the region.
In understanding the converging approach of the Asian region to international law and institutions it may be useful to turn to the history of the development of capitalism in the region. It is the development of capitalism, be it in the form of market socialism or neo-liberal capitalism, which explains why major powers like China, India or Indonesia, are today committed to the extant liberal international legal order. The increasing number of free trade agreements (FTAs) signed in the region, albeit with different elements, is a pointer in this direction. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), for the present rejected by U.S President-elect Donald Trump, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) also manifest the greater acceptance of the liberal order. Leading Asian powers also have faith, as John Ikenberry of Princeton University notes in his writings, that the liberal international system can be incrementally reformed to address their concerns (John Ikenberry, ‘The Future of the Liberal World Order: Internationalism after America’, Foreign Affairs, May-June 2011, pp.56-68). In short, the increasing convergence is a function of the trajectory of development of capitalism in Asia in the era of accelerated globalization. This factor deserves more attention.
In projecting the possibilities of convergence it may also be worthwhile to pay attention to cultural factors like the creation of national and international societies of international law in Asia. The national societies of international law (for example in India, Japan, Korea and Philippines) have existed for decades. Recent years have also seen the founding of international societies like the Development of International Law in Asia (1989) and the Asian Society of International Law (2007) to promote international law in the region. These developments are to be read in conjunction with the view that Asian practices have contributed to the evolution and development of modern international law. The relevant historical practices are documented in the writings of scholars like C.H. Alexandrowicz and R.P. Anand and in the judgments of, among others, Judge Christopher Weeramantry. The use from colonial times of western textbooks to impart international law has also socialized diplomats and scholars into sharing its current liberal worldview.
All in all Professor Chesterman has made a significant beginning in understanding and explaining the Asian approach to international law and international institutions. It is hoped that others will join, debate, and enrich his contribution.