Safeguarding the Multilateral International Order: Upholding Fundamental Principles and Breaking New Ground
For some time, there has been a heated debate over the question of what type of international order we in the international community should build. Different from the “rules-based international order” championed by the US and other Western countries, President Xi Jinping pointed out at the General Debate of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2021 that in the world, there is only one international system, i.e. the international system with the UN at its core. There is only one international order, i.e. the international order underpinned by international law. And there is only one set of rules, i.e. the basic norms governing international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. This solemn declaration plays a key role in the international community to set things straight. China’s view on the international order is multilateralism in essence. The core is multilateral rules underpinned by the UN Charter and the multilateral system with the UN at the center.
I. The multilateral international order advocated by China is underpinned by UN Charter-based international law
The international order is always established on the basis of international law, and international law is an important element of the international order. The history of international law over more than 400 years has seen a development from the public law of Europe in the 17th century, to the international law of the “civilized nations” during the European colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries, and to the modern international law underpinned by the UN Charter and applicable to all members of the international community after the end of World War II. The UN Charter once and for all put an end to the hegemonic international law and opened a new chapter in the history of international law, drawing up the basic structure, common vision and generally-accepted rules of post-World War II international order.
The UN Charter establishes the basic structure of the post-World War II international order, with sovereign countries and the UN as the subjects, and divides the jurisdictions of individual countries and the UN. The UN Charter upholds the essential status of sovereign countries in the international order. It also makes clear the important role the UN plays in maintaining international peace and collective security, developing friendly relations among countries and promoting international cooperation in various fields. It is on this basis that the basic principles of international law are developed, mainly for regulating relations among countries, and the legal norms of international public order are formulated, mainly for safeguarding the common interests of the international community. The UN Charter also makes it clear that the UN shall not intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state, and sets out the basic principles for handling relations between sovereign countries and the UN.
The UN Charter establishes the basic principles of international law, and sets out the basic norms for all countries of the international community. Sovereign equality of states is the foremost principle of the UN Charter. From it other principles are derived and developed, including non- intervention in other countries’ internal affairs, equal rights and self-determination of peoples, no threat or use of force, settlement of international disputes by peaceful means, international cooperation and fulfillment of obligations in good faith. In 1970, the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations further confirmed that these principles shall constitute the basic principles of international law, laying the foundation of modern international law. This is the legal foundation for the 193 member states of the UN to live in harmony. It provides the basis for countries to engage with each other, cooperate and settle disputes. It also becomes the criteria for judging whether these acts are legal or illegal, just or unjust, and whether or not they should be held responsible, winning broad recognition and common observance of all countries.
The UN Charter establishes its primacy in the system of international law. According to Article 103 of the UN Charter, in the event of a conflict between the obligations of the members of the United Nations under the Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the Charter shall prevail. This means the international law underpinning the post-World War II international order is the international law based on the UN Charter. Therefore, traditional international law before World War II or modern international law after World War II, and international law in the form of treaties, customs or general principles, must all be based on the UN Charter. Colonial and hegemonic international law, customary international law or regional international law that run counter to the UN Charter are null and void. This clearly defines the scope of international law on which the post-World War II international order is based.
The UN Charter lays the foundation for the basic norms of modern international relations. The basic norms of international relations include but are not limited to international law, and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter are the basis for both international law and the basic norms of international relations. The UN Charter is taken as the guiding principle of international treaties in all fields of modern international law, be it the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, or the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; be it the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and its two Implementing Agreements, the Outer Space Treaty or the Antarctic Treaty; be it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the four Geneva Conventions and their two Additional Protocols, or international conventions against crimes punishing violation of human rights, such as the United Nations Convention against Corruption and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; be it the environmental treaties in atmosphere, desertification, ozone, forestry, endangered species and chemicals, or the Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. All of them are guided by the purposes and principles of the United Nations enshrined in the UN Charter. The UN Charter lays the foundation for international rules including post-war international conventions and other international instruments.
Today, more than 70 years after the UN’s founding, the UN Charter remains as relevant as ever. International practices have proven time and again that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter are the fundamental guide for handling international relations, an important guarantee of world peace and development, and the cornerstone of modern international law and international relations. They deserve to be jointly defended and safeguarded by all countries.
Different from the international order underpinned by UN Charter-based international law advocated by China, the “rules-based international order” championed by the US and other Western countries aims to dominate the right to define “rules” and is just another version of “liberal international order.” The “rules” they make for themselves are essentially the Western democratic political system, market economic system and Western human rights and ideology. In fact, they are trying to impose the “house rules” of a small number of countries on the international community, and perpetuate the hegemony of Western systems.
II. The multilateral international order advocated by China is based on the UN-centered international system
For the first time, the UN Charter, in the universally-accepted form of a treaty, establishes the multilateral international system with sovereign countries as the foundation, the UN as the center and regional international organizations as supplement.
Sovereign countries are the basic entities of the international community. Maintaining sovereignty of countries and developing friendly relations among countries are important purposes of the UN. The UN does not place itself above sovereign countries, and countries are still the major actors on the stage of the UN.
As the most representative and authoritative inter-governmental organization, the UN is central to the post-World War II multilateral international system. The UN plays a leading role in maintaining international peace and security, and the Security Council, in particular, has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Meanwhile, the UN also plays an important role in promoting international cooperation on international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and serves as the center for harmonizing the international exchanges and cooperation of all nations.
As important supplements to the UN, the UN specialized agencies and treaty bodies play an indispensable role in coordinating international affairs. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), through concluding bilateral treaties with specialized international organizations, enable them to establish ties with the UN and become members of the UN family. In addition, ECOSOC places relevant international affairs under the jurisdiction of the UN through international cooperation. To date, the UN has established ties with 17 specialized agencies in areas including labor, currency, civil aviation, food and agriculture, health, culture, meteorology, maritime affairs, postal service, industry, intellectual property, tourism, agriculture and telecommunications. The UN also establishes ties with other international organizations and multilateral treaty organizations by concluding treaties and incorporates them into the UN system. These include the World Trade Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and relevant human rights treaty organizations.
Regional international organizations also play a notable role in international affairs. Chapter 8 of the UN Charter establishes the functions of regional arrangements and organizations such as maintaining international peace and security and settling regional disputes. It integrates regional international organizations into the UN global system for maintaining international peace and security, and recognizes the unique value of regional arrangements and organizations to the maintenance of international peace and security. In the meantime, the UN Charter “does not preclude the development of regional international organizations in other areas”, and regional international organizations also play a role in regional economic, social and other fields. In practice, regional organizations usually establish ties and coordinate with the UN through their charters or bilateral arrangements and become a part of the UN-centered international system.
Over the years, the UN system has made tremendous achievements in maintaining world peace and security as well as enhancing economic and social development, playing an irreplaceable role in advancing the cause of human progress. The former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the UN that the achievements made by the UN over the past 70 years were inspiring. The collapse of colonialism, the end of apartheid, the consolidation of peace and security, and the conclusion and implementation of human rights conventions couldn’t have been achieved without the contribution of the UN.
In contrast, the institutions jointly established by the international community claimed by the US and other Western countries are nothing but small circles drawn along ideological lines. They are fundamentally different from the international system with the UN system at its core and essentially aim to undercut the leading role of the UN system in international affairs.
III. The US seriously undermines the international law and international order based on the UN Charter
International practices show that some international law and international mechanisms established in the UN Charter have not been fully implemented. The US pursues unilateralism and has brought most damage to the international law and international order based on the UN Charter.
The US has seriously undermined the multilateral rules based on the UN Charter. First, it seeks “supremacy of US interests”, violating the universally recognized and basic principles of international law established in the UN Charter. The US attempts to rewrite the principle of sovereign equality and draws ideological lines among different social systems, dividing countries into “democratic countries”, “authoritarian countries”, “rogue states” and “axis of evil”, and building exclusive coalitions based on values. It takes Western-style market economic system, “democratic” political system and Western-style human rights as universal standards to impose changes upon developing countries, and links values with economy and trade, development, assistance, and science and technology to make an excuse for punishing those who disagree with them. Taking “democratic governance” as the prerequisite of government legitimacy, the US attempts to replace “effective governance” with “democratic legitimacy” as the criterion for deciding whether to recognize a government. Moreover, it takes a country’s practice of Western-style “democratic governance” as the condition for it to participate in international affairs, in an attempt to revive the theory of the standard of civilization during the colonial period. The US seriously interferes in other countries’ internal affairs and manipulates the lending rules of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It makes the implementation of “market economy”, “democratic system” and “good governance” a condition for providing assistance to developing countries, infringing on the self-determination right of nations to independently choose their economic and social systems. The US overinterprets and applies the rule of self-defense by force, expanding its scope from “under attack by force” to “potential threat” and its objects from foreign states to foreign non-state actors.
Second, the US places its domestic law above the international law, violating the principles of international cooperation. It has taken a self-centered policy stance of non-cooperation, withdrawn from international organizations and agreements, and engaged in deglobalization and trade protectionism. It has carried out unilateral military actions and imposed economic sanctions outside of the UN and actively pursues unilateral trade outside of the World Trade Organization, disrupting the collective security system of the UN and the multilateral trading system. The US attempts to internationalize its domestic law, repeatedly violates the rules governing the division of jurisdiction among states prescribed by the international law, and abuses extraterritoriality and “long-arm jurisdiction” in its transnational law enforcement and illegal unilateral sanctions. Through domestic legislation, the US attempts to establish “international standards” in such fields as arms control, environmental protection, human rights, narcotics control and counter-terrorism. It also uses the so-called annual reporting to review the compliance of other countries and replace the monitoring mechanism for international treaty implementation with its domestic review mechanism.
Third, the US has adopted double standards, arbitrarily interpreting and selectively applying universally recognized international rules, circumventing applicable international rules. The US is making an all-out effort to discredit the validity of the UN General Assembly resolutions reflecting the position of developing countries such as the Declaration on Principles of International Law, while boasting the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is no different from other resolutions of the UN General Assembly. It refuses to join a series of law-making treaties that form the basis of the international law and has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Absent from six of the nine core international human rights conventions, the US is the major country that joins the least international human rights conventions in the world. It uses its political and economic advantages to reinvent the wheel outside of the UN framework and introduces international “soft laws” as well as bilateral and regional agreements to circumvent the widely recognized international rules.
In addition, the US has brought serious damage to the multilateral international mechanisms based on the UN Charter. First, it has undermined the international system with the UN at its core. It seeks to dominate international affairs through unilateral, bilateral or regional arrangements outside of the UN system and interfere in transnational issues and international affairs on which the UN should lead or coordinate, eroding the central role of the UN as the center for harmonizing the actions of nations. Second, the US has brought damage to the collective security mechanism established by the UN Charter. It frequently bypasses the UN Security Council to create security and military alliances, and geopolitical circles, putting the security interests of its military alliances above the international community’s common interests. Moreover, it carried out the so-called “humanitarian intervention” in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, without the mandate of the UN Security Council. After the legitimacy of its action was rejected, the US turned to the NGOs, pushing them to create the concept of “responsibility to protect,” in an attempt to legitimize its unilateral humanitarian military intervention, only to find itself on the opposite side of the international community. In 2005, the World Summit Outcome incorporated the “responsibility to protect” into the framework of the UN.
By contrast, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a responsible major country, China has always observed the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, and exercised its rights according to universally recognized international law, and fulfilled its international obligation with good faith. China adheres to mutual respect for sovereignty and maintains that all countries, regardless of size and strength, are equals. We promote building a new type of international relations based on mutual respect, win-win cooperation, fairness, and justice and advocate greater democracy and the rule of law in international relations. China opposes hegemonism and power politics. We are against interference in other countries’ internal affairs under any excuse or by any means. China not only sticks to a peaceful development path but also remains an advocate, promoter, and guardian of peace in international affairs. We respect the diversity of world civilizations and cultures, and call for common values of humanity and exchanges and mutual learning among different civilizations. China firmly safeguards its territorial integrity in accordance with the law. We oppose other countries using Taiwan, Tibet, “East Turkistan” and Hong Kong to interfere in our internal affairs, reject the absurd argument of “remedial secession,” and resolutely fight against illegal occupation of Chinese islands and reefs and violation of China’s maritime rights and interests. Regarding the illegal conducts of other countries that violate international law and undermine China’s national interests and rights of property, China will hold the countries concerned accountable for their international responsibility in accordance with the universally recognized international law.
IV. Safeguarding multilateral international order based on the UN Charter remains a long and arduous journey
The world is now faced with challenges posed by unilateralism and deglobalization, and the threat of populism, protectionism, and isolationism. Global governance is at a crossroads in history. However, this doesn’t mean that adhering to the multilateral international order based on the UN Charter is wrong; still less does it mean that the UN Charter has gone outdated. On the contrary, the problems are due to the failure to effectively fulfill the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. What has gone wrong is not multilateralism itself; but that the essence of multilateralism has not been faithfully implemented. Looking ahead, we must firmly uphold and continuously develop the multilateral international order based on the UN Charter.
First, we should uphold true multilateralism. The UN Charter and the United Nations are two pillars of multilateralism. To uphold multilateralism, we should pursue equality, inclusiveness, cooperation, common interests and other multilateral visions enshrined in the UN Charter. We should follow the multilateral rules based on the UN Charter as our fundamental guide. We need to adhere to the basic framework of multilateral mechanism with the UN at its core, adhere to the fundamental goal of safeguarding common interests of all countries, and adhere to multilateral cooperation as a way of working with each other. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said recently, “Multilateral cooperation is the beating heart of the United Nations, its raison d’être, and guiding vision.”
Second, we should firmly uphold the true international law based on the UN Charter. We should firmly stand for equality of all countries in terms of their international legal personality. We should adhere to the principle that all countries, regardless of size, strength, and wealth, are equally entitled to participate in the formulation of international rules and in handling international affairs. We should uphold the equality of all countries in their systems. Different systems, religions, and civilizations should be viewed as equal to each other. All countries have the right to independently choose and develop their own political, social, economic, and cultural systems and oppose hegemonism, interference, coercion, and unlawful unilateral sanctions. We should stick to equal exercise of rights and fulfillment of obligations in accordance with international law, uphold unified application and good-faith interpretation of treaties, and oppose exceptionalism and double standards. We should adhere to a peaceful settlement of international disputes and the collective security mechanism, oppose wilful interpretation of countries’ right to self-defense, and oppose interference on humanitarian grounds without the mandate of the UN Security Council.
At the same time, it is necessary to address the root cause of injustice, oppose the hegemonic remnants of international law, remove colonialist international law that are contrary to the UN Charter, and redress the misinterpretation and misuse of the UN Charter. We should urge members of the international community to jointly resist unlawful acts, refrain from recognizing and assisting unlawful acts in international affairs, and stop them through cooperation, in order to safeguard the stability of the international order, and international equality and justice.
Third, we should uphold and consolidate a genuinely international system with the UN at its core. We should firmly uphold the authority of the UN, support the central role of the UN system in international affairs and global governance, adhere to the collective security mechanism with the UN Security Council at its core, and support the UN in playing a greater role in maintaining international peace and security. We should give full play to the central role of the UN specialized agencies in global governance in economic, social, cultural and other fields. We should support regional organizations in playing a positive role in resolving regional issues and oppose the attempt of any extra-regional force to intervene in regional issues or expand its power across borders.
Fourth, we should improve and develop international rules and mechanisms by keeping up with the times. We should consolidate and develop international law based on the UN Charter, adhere to the basic principles of international law, such as the sovereign equality of states, non-interference in internal affairs and international cooperation, and further explore its connotations of coexistence, democracy, inclusiveness, solidarity, and win-win cooperation, so as to adapt to new developments in international relations. We should transcend the common interests of international peace and security protected by the UN Charter and actively guide the improvement of international rules in such areas as the global commons, international public goods, artificial intelligence, data security, and public health, to safeguard the broader interests of the international community as a whole and the common interests of all mankind, and promote the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.
We should improve the relevant mechanisms of international law, uphold the rights of all countries to participate in global governance on an equal footing, strengthen the coordinating role of the UN in responding to traditional and non-traditional challenges of armed conflicts, public health risks, climate change, energy crises, cybersecurity, terrorism and so on, and promote the establishment of a nation-led, multiparty, multitiered global governance system.
As a founding member of the UN, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the largest developing country, China will, as always, support the UN, uphold the UN Charter, and strive to be a defender of world peace, a contributor to common development, a builder of international governance and a facilitator of economic globalization. We also look forward to working with all countries to build a stronger UN, promote a closer community with a shared future for mankind, and make greater contribution to the development and progress of mankind under the banner of the UN.
Ma Xinmin is Director-General of the Department of Treaty and Law of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.