19 Jan International Law in the Asian Century: Conclusion to Opinio Juris and EJIL:Talk! Mini-Symposium
[Simon Chesterman is Dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. He is also Editor of the Asian Journal of International Law and Secretary-General of the Asian Society of International Law. Educated in Melbourne, Beijing, Amsterdam, and Oxford, Simon’s teaching experience includes periods at Melbourne, Oxford, Columbia, Sciences Po, and New York University.]
An academic learns most through errors and omissions. Far better to be criticized in text than footnoted in passing — both, of course, are preferable to being ignored. I am therefore enormously grateful that such esteemed scholars and practitioners were willing to take part in this joint Opinio Juris and EJIL:Talk! symposium and offer their responses to arguments put forward in my article for the current issue of EJIL, giving me and other readers refinements and additions that will enrich the larger conversation of which this symposium is a part.
The six commentators raise many issues, which I will address under three broad headings of power, history, and method. Each also brings to their paper a certain optimism or pessimism about what the future may hold, something to which I will return at the end.
Judge Xue Hanqin puts at the forefront an argument about which I may have been too delicate. Asian states are not wary of delegating sovereignty because they are “ambivalent” about international law, she writes, but “because they do not believe that international law as … advocated and practiced would protect their fundamental rights and interests.” Similarly, regional integration is not primarily a matter of law, but of policy. The relative absence of regional institutions in Asia is not simply due to diversity and the other factors highlighted in the article; rather, it is attributable to geopolitical divisions within the region and in its various relations with other great powers.
This echoes a point made by Professor Eyal Benvenisti, who proposes that regional cooperation may be driven by external pressure as much as internal cohesion. The presence of an outside rival, for example, can encourage greater integration as the Soviet Union did for Europe and the United States did for Latin America. No such rival drove regional integration in Asia, though at the sub-regional level ASEAN has clearly been shaped by the ten member states’ relations with larger countries in East and South Asia as well as by their own identification as Southeast Asian.
Professor Antony Anghie also makes an important point about power in his historical survey. The Asian states that fought for the New International Economic Order (NIEO), he argues, had a vision but no power; by contrast, the Asian states that have power today lack any comparable alternative vision. Professor B.S. Chimni similarly suggests that the lack of a regional organization in Asia may be attributed to the fact that no Asian state has had the combination of material capability and legitimacy necessary to lead the formation of such an entity.
These observations about power go beyond the standard challenge to international law of its claim to being “law”. They recall far older critiques of the rule of law even in its domestic context: that it reifies power relations and thus is naturally embraced by whoever benefits most from the system. (It does and it is.) Nevertheless, as even the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson recognized, the rule of law remains an “unqualified human good” for its ability, nonetheless, to impose effective inhibitions upon power and defend against power’s all-intrusive claims.
So it is, I would contend, at the international level. Smaller states (like Singapore) are naturally most enthusiastic about the rule of law, but even larger ones (like China) are progressively seeing that it is in their enlightened self-interest to embrace such a world order, much as the United States did following the conclusion of the Second World War — a moment when its relative power was, arguably, at its greatest.
Turning to history, Professor Anghie rightly notes the incompleteness of my account of the achievements and failures of Asian states in their efforts to engage with international law. I concede that I do not do this rich history justice — though blame surely lies also with EJIL’s word limit. Some of this deficiency will be remedied in a forthcoming Handbook of International Law in Asia and the Pacific that I am editing for Oxford University Press together with Judge Hisashi Owada and Professor Ben Saul (and to which Professor Anghie is contributing a chapter).
As Judge Jin-Hyun Paik emphasizes, that history continues. It would be a mistake, for example, to assume that Asian states’ attitudes towards international law are static. As he shows in his own survey of international adjudication, those attitudes are clearly evolving. From relative non-engagement with the Permanent Court of International Justice, the movement has been from infrequent respondents to occasional applicants before the International Court of Justice and other tribunals, with important recent instances of Asian states consenting to litigate sovereignty disputes. Though Asian states remain the least likely to accept compulsory jurisdiction or appear in international tribunals, he demonstrates that the willingness to do both is increasing.
The article attempts to downplay any grand claims about “Asia” and “international law” that might be inferred from the title. Nevertheless, such work is intended to be examined for its method as well as its conclusions.
Professor Chimni rightly warns of the dangers of cultural essentialism, geographical determinism, and materialist reductionism. (He generously gives me a pass on a fourth pitfall of orientalism.) His point that Asian states’ economic interactions play an important role in constructing their world view is well taken. He also emphasizes that reluctance to sign onto a given international regime need not imply opposition to its objectives, giving the example of Asian states’ treatment of millions of refugees.
Professor Robert McCorquodale queries the use of “Asia” as a category, in particular the relative absence of the Pacific and the Middle East from my analysis. Judge Paik also stresses the diversity of Asia, highlighting in particular the relative openness of East Asia to international cooperation. These are fair observations and the attitudes of the various sub-regions of Asia would bear further study. (For my own views on Southeast Asia, see this recent work on ASEAN.) Professor McCorquodale also suggests that the role of non-state actors might be a fertile line of inquiry — particularly the role played by business entities, given the relative willingness of Asian states to accept binding agreements in the area of trade and investment.
At a more fundamental level, Judge Xue queries whether the premise of the article — that Asian states benefit most from a world ordered by law — is properly made out. Claiming that the economic success of Asian states is due to international law and institutions may be a bit “self-conscious of the discipline”. She is surely correct that internal as well as external factors were responsible, but I would still argue that international law was necessary if not sufficient for the prosperity and stability that Asia now enjoys.
Judge Xue concludes that, while Asia should not be expected to carry on the role of “rule-taker”, there is some way to go before it becomes a meaningful “rule-maker”. In particular, she questions my declinist account of the United States, writing that it “is and will continue to be the dominant Power in the region.” On the issue of whether international law will become more representative and more democratic, she proposes that this challenge needs to be directed at the West as much as at the East.
On this last point, Professor Benvenisti suggests that President-elect Trump (who takes office shortly after this post goes live), embraces a conservative view of international law that is consistent with the Five Principles embraced by China and India for half a century, recently reaffirmed in the joint declaration by Russia and China. I suspect he is correct, but President Trump has routinely contradicted previously articulated positions and I am wary of joining the ranks of those who predicted what he would do and failed.
Though it is often invoked, there is no Chinese curse that means: “May you live in interesting times”. Provenance notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the coming years will be interesting. It is my hope that my article and this symposium will encourage greater analysis of how power is shaped by law and vice-versa, how history influences the present, and how research can better prepare us for whatever the future may bring.
Thank you, once again, to the organizers of this symposium and to Judges Xue and Paik, and Professors Anghie, Benvenisti, Chimni, and McCorquodale for taking the time to offer their thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. This is clearly not the end of this conversation, or even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.