International Economic Law Symposium: Emerging Powers and International Economic Governance–More Promises, More Risks or Irrelevance?

International Economic Law Symposium: Emerging Powers and International Economic Governance–More Promises, More Risks or Irrelevance?

[Congyan Cai is a Professor of International Law at Fudan University School of Law.]

The landscape of international power has seen considerable realignment in the past decade, which is expected to continue in coming years. A couple of former less powerful states whose voices were silenced have increased their capability to influence international economic governance and their economic power continues to grow. In contrast, those great powers who, relying on their overwhelming state power, have taken leadership in international economic governance for decades tend to reduce their influence. At this juncture, more and more people are concerned what emerging powers will bring about to international economic governance. In my knowledge, many, if not most, commentators from Western states tend to focus on the question to what extent emerging powers challenge the leadership of Western powers and how Western powers manage to resist this potential process. Or they suggest that emerging powers will disrupt international economic governance. What they are less interested in, is thinking about the question how international economic governance could benefit from the rise of non-Western States.

   Now I would like to express my sincere congratulations and appreciation on the new book of Andreas Buser, Emerging Powers, Global Justice and International Economic Law: Reformers of an Unjust Order? This is not only because this book is one of the few publications which engage with the interplay between emerging powers and international economic governance in a systematic way. More importantly, this is because, unlike many of his Western peers, Andreas Buser takes an open approach in this regard. What draws his attention is not what the Western world will lose and what emerging powers will get. His attention is whether and how emerging powers will enhance global justice by reshaping international economic governance. Therefore, while he does not draw absolute conclusions, he opens the door for dialogues rather than accusations.

Implicit in Buser’s book is that the current international economic governance is not fair to ‘impoverished nations and peoples’, which in my opinion is admitted only by a small number of Western scholars and far less Western governments. Until now it is fair to say that the major concern for the later is how to push economic liberation to the maximum instead of supporting a development agenda in the interest of ‘impoverished nations and peoples’. This perception guides Buser to evaluate the potential benefits and risks that emerging powers will bring about to international economic governance.

The history of international law reminds many people of the fact that a handful of Western states repeatedly abused their predominant power to pursue their own state interests and that today’s international economic governance is built thereon. Buser is aware that it is no longer easy for great powers to arbitrarily exert their power as they did before because international power tends to decentralize and because international law, albeit still weak, has more strength against great powers. Therefore, it seems that, from the perspective of Western great powers, international economic governance may be likely to be more reliant on international law than before and less reliant on their power. On the other hand, Buser agrees that power still matters to international law. Therefore, in addition to power, whether emerging powers have the intention to reform international economic governance is another major concern. According to Buser, emerging powers appear to have no intention to reinitiate the New International Economic Order (NIEO) which the Third World pursued in the 1960s and 1970s. In the view of Buser, emerging powers’ approaches to the current international economic governance have a “rather reformative, or even loyal, rather than radical character”. However, Buser does not explain why emerging powers are so reluctant: Is it because they find not powerful enough? Or is it because the current international economic governance is quite improved so that it is no longer necessary to completely overhaul it? Or does current international economic governance, while still not fair to many other developing states, satisfy emerging powers? In any case, Buser’s observation has two implications. First, it is less necessary for Western powers to take antagonist attitudes towards emerging powers. Second, there is the risk that emerging powers and the Western powers collude to defend the current international economic governance which is unfair to “impoverished nations and peoples”.

The perspective of global justice makes Buser go beyond merely identifying the interplay between emerging powers and international economic governance as a struggle between great powers for their own narrow interests. Instead, such an interplay is considered by Buser as a chance to improve international economic law in the interest of all people. In the view of Buser, to give more policy space to host states is helpful, but not enough. Drawing on the recent work of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) which, in particular, encourages the endorsement of the extraterritorial obligations of human rights of home states, Buser suggests that the incorporation of extraterritorial obligations of human rights can guide the reform of international economic law to the direction of achieving better global justice. This extraterritorial human rights-based approach is helpful to persuade great powers, including emerging powers to balance the pursuit of their own state interests and the promotion of welfare of individuals around the world. I wonder, however, that it can serve as a major approach towards delivering more global justice. First, as Buser notes, the work of the CESCR at this stage is still preliminary. It is hard to predict to what extent the CESCR can expand that approach to international economic governance. More importantly, the “normative benchmarks” deriving from Buser’s human rights-based approach, arguably represent minimum requirements for great powers. It is hard to say whether such an approach can justify reform of international economic governance to an extent expected by many developing states. Second, I think a major impediment to better international economic governance and further global justice is the very approach of economic liberalization that Western states persist to promote. Under this approach, the more liberalization, the better economic governance, and this is why policy space is arguably considered as an exception in international economic governance. Perhaps in the view of many Western commentators, the more policy space will be given, the more the universality of international will be threatened. I wonder whether, in Buser’s opinion, such a human right-based approach can be relied on to justify more policy space for developing states.

From the perspective of a Chinese international lawyer, Buser, together with many other Western commentators, does not discuss an issue which I think is fundamental to the future behavior of emerging powers, especially China. That is, what attitude Western powers hold towards the role of emerging powers in international economic governance. Given the deteriorated relations between China and the Western states, especially the US, which, inter alia, refers to the unprecedent trade war that the US initiated against China in 2018, there is a growing concern among Chinese commentators whether the Western states seek to merely contain the rise of China or to work together with China to improve international economic governance and further to achieve better global justice.

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