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The International Misrule of Law

NEW DELHI – On the face of it, China’s recent declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) extending to territories that it does not control has nothing in common with America’s arrest and strip-search of a New York-based Indian diplomat for allegedly underpaying a housekeeper she had brought with her from India. In fact, these episodes epitomize both powers’ unilateralist approach to international law.

A just, rules-based global order has long been touted by powerful states as essential for international peace and security. Yet there is a long history of major powers flouting international law while using it against other states. The League of Nations failed because it could not punish or deter such behavior. Today, the United States and China serve as prime examples of a unilateralist approach to international relations, even as they aver support for strengthening global rules and institutions.

Consider the US, which has refused to join key international treaties – for example, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (which has not yet entered into force), and the 1998 International Criminal Court Statute. Indeed, unilateralism remains the leitmotif of US foreign policy, and this is also reflected in its international interventions, whether cyber warfare and surveillance, drone attacks, or efforts to bring about regime change.

Meanwhile, China’s growing geopolitical heft has led to muscle-flexing and territorial claims in Asia that disregard international norms. China rejects some of the same treaties that the US has declined to join, including the International Criminal Court Statute and the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (the first law to establish rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes, and aquifers).