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New Rules for Changing Times

May 04, 2023
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member, Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University

China has blended itself into — and benefited from — the existing global order. And now it will be its defender, reformer and builder. Since the beginning of the new century, especially in the past decade, with the changes of the times and the international landscape and the rapid development of science and technology, the world urgently needs some new international laws and mechanisms. This is by no means to overthrow the existing international order, but to improve and develop it, making it more conducive to the peace and development of all countries.

What new international instruments and mechanisms are needed for this purpose? Here I would like to talk about the most urgent and important needs from the Chinese perspective. 

First, new rules must be established in many new security fields. 

1. Cybersecurity. Because of a lack of commonly accepted rules, mankind is confronted with huge risks and challenges in cybersecurity. It is urgent for the international community to produce instruments to prevent and combat cybercrimes and ban attacks on internet infrastructure. The former is under discussion in the United Nations, while the latter should be put on the UN agenda as soon as possible. 

2. Space security. There is now an alarming arms race emerging in space. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United Nations formulated five international accords, including The Outer Space Treaty. Since the 1980s, the General Assembly has adopted a series of declarations and resolutions related to space activities, which expanded the scope of laws governing outer space. Since the beginning of the 21st century, space technologies have been developing rapidly and applied extensively. In this connection, laws and regulations for space must be further improved. It is imperative to formulate laws to deal with the militarization of space, to mitigate space debris and make rules for space traffic management and resource development and utilization.

For some time, some regions or countries have formulated codes of conduct, but they have not become commonly accepted international norms. Since 2008, China and Russia have submitted several drafts of a Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) treaty to at the Conference on Disarmament. The effort hasn’t been successful due to opposition of the US and some other countries. 

3. Artificial intelligence. In recent years, AI technologies have also developed rapidly. In the absence of relevant international laws or regulations, the application of artificial intelligence — especially its weaponization — adds risk to international security. The Artificial Intelligence Act (AIA) proposed by the European Commission two years ago has not yet been approved by the European Parliament.

A recent development, in January, was the signing a U.S.-EU agreement on comprehensive cooperation in five major areas of AI. But the cooperation is currently only between the United States and Europe. Now the international community urgently needs an agreement in this field that includes all countries of the world. 

4. Climate change and biodiversity. Important agreements are already there — the Paris agreement, for example. The key lies in implementation. At the same time, existing agreements must be constantly enriched and reinforced as the situation evolves. 

5. Oceans. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1994, provides an important legal basis for all countries of the world to handle maritime affairs, rights and interests. However, there are still some ambiguities in the convention, which needs further improvement. For example, military activities are not defined, leading to serious differences in the legal views of China and the U.S. on military activities in exclusive economic zones. 

6. Terrorism. Up to now, the United Nations has adopted more than 10 instruments, including the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The world should act in observance with these and redouble support for all of them. 

Second, the United Nations and its affiliated organizations, international financial and trade organizations such as the WB, IMF and WTO, and treaties against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, all created after World War II, should be reformed and improved as appropriate. 

1. On the basis of resolutely upholding the UN Charter, a primary task of the UN reform should be to expand the representation of permanent members, especially by increasing the number of developing countries. The 76th General Assembly adopted a resolution for it to automatically convene a formal meeting to review and comment on any veto cast in the Security Council. China understands and identifies with the starting point of this resolution. China believes that the basic principle of UN reform is to increase democracy and efficiency in the organization. 

2. Reform of the World Bank and IMF. China believes that both should continue to carry out democratic reforms, including the right to speak and vote, and constantly expand the weight of developing countries, especially emerging economies. Although some progress has been made in the relevant reforms over the years, the United States and Europe still dominate the leadership positions. This situation should be gradually changed. 

3. WTO reform. In the face of an existential crisis confronting the World Trade Organization, China put forward a 12-point proposal for reform in 2019. It urged countries to address critical and urgent issues threatening the survival of the organization, which was clearly targeted unilaterally by some countries. It also recommended enlarging the WTO’s relevance in global economic governance, improving its operational efficiency and strengthening the inclusiveness of the multilateral trading system.

China believes that the fundamental purpose of WTO reform is to further promote global trade liberalization and facilitate the development of the digital economy, green economy and low-carbon economy. 

4. Prohibition of chemical and biological weapons and prevention of nuclear proliferation. In this field, the many conventions, treaties and resolutions concluded at the UN are extremely important for international security now and in the future. Among them, the NPT and CWC have strict verification mechanisms, but international verification is not possible for the BWC because of American obstruction. To improve this convention, it is essential to set up a verification system. The NPT has three pillars — peaceful uses of nuclear energy, non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament — which must be implemented in a comprehensive and balanced manner.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the UN a few years ago, reflects the urgent desire and determination of non-nuclear states to completely destroy nuclear weapons, but it is unrealistic to achieve that objective right now. It is more feasible that all nuclear-weapons states should first adopt the policy of not using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states, a position China advocates, and the policy of fully supporting the establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones around the world.

It will be very positive if these elements, plus the prevention of nuclear proliferation by non-state actors and opposition to nuclear terrorism, can be added to the NPT. In addition, China argues that the U.S. and Russia should earnestly fulfill their special and primary responsibilities for nuclear disarmament and continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals substantively in accordance with the START, thus creating conditions for the ultimate comprehensive and complete nuclear disarmament. For CTBT, some countries have not yet completed the ratification procedure. It will be very important to strictly abide by the treaty pending the completion of those procedures. 

Third, three major issues bear on global peace and development. New international laws and mechanisms should be developed with those in mind. 

1. Humanitarian intervention. After the end of the Cold War, the United States and other Western countries launched many wars in the name of humanitarian intervention, leading to even greater humanitarian disasters. At the 2005 summit, heads of state and governments affirmed at the United Nations the responsibility to protect people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. However, that responsibility has not yet played its due role. Clearer and more feasible laws must be made in this regard, including the necessary criteria for intervention and the protocols to be followed, such as the essential principles of Security Council mandates, minimum interference in the internal affairs of the countries concerned and immediate withdrawal upon achievement of purpose. 

2. Military alliances. Since the start of the new century, China has clearly articulated a new vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. Accordingly, it believes that military alliances, as a leftover of the Cold War, should be transformed, and regional multilateral security cooperation mechanisms should play a greater role. For the former, military alliances need to abandon the Cold War mentality and change the practice of setting imaginary enemies; become defensive in nature and refrain from interfering in other countries’ internal affairs; constantly increase transparency and inclusiveness with active security dialogues with other countries and removal of confrontational elements, thus playing a constructive role in maintaining regional security, especially in responding to non-traditional security challenges. For the latter, there should be more and strengthened regional multilateral security dialogue and cooperation organizations of various kinds, which should gradually become the leading force in maintaining regional security. In East Asia, China actively supports ASEAN’s central position in regional multilateral cooperation. At the same time, China adheres to the policy of partnership and non-alignment, and never engages in bloc politics or camp confrontation. 

3. Bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements and regional and global development cooperation. This is a major positive aspect in the development and changes of the world order since the end of the Cold War. As of 2021, China had signed 19 free trade agreements with 26 countries and regions. China has also applied to join the CPTPP. It resolutely opposes the various misguided acts to decouple or break the chain by the U.S. in recent years.

The global development initiative put forward by China in 2021 identified poverty reduction, food security, pandemic response and vaccines, development financing, climate change and green development, industrialization, digital economy and connectivity as key areas of international cooperation. The Belt and Road Initiative introduced by China is a pioneering attempt. The AIIB, established on China’s initiative, implements universal international laws and plays a significant and positive role in supporting regional infrastructure construction. Many Western countries are also part of it. 

In short, China believes that as the international situation and landscape evolve, we need to put in place new laws, reform unfair or outdated ones, actively develop and promote more multilateral cooperation mechanisms and facilitate the transformation of military alliances. What is quite different today is that, at present and in the future, the formulation of new international institutions, mechanisms and laws and the reform and improvement of the existing ones should no longer be completely dominated by the West — let alone by the United States alone — but should be done through multilateral cooperation. In this process, the world’s major countries should and can jointly play a greater role. 

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