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Needs of ‘Belt & Road’ call for innovation in int’l law research

Author  :  He Zhipeng and Sun Lu     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-10-21

The launch of the “Belt and Road” initiative has expanded the scope of research on international law by providing new topics and injecting vitality into the discipline.

Over the past three decades, the field of international law has moved away from the construction of grand narratives, and it now focuses on detailed analyses of legal systems and mechanisms.

Sophisticated empirical analysis of international law was rare 30 years ago because China had much fewer international economic interactions at the time. For pragmatic reasons, the field of international law in China primarily focused on state immunity.

Since the 1990s, the popularization of the Internet and the proliferation of all kinds of databases have enabled easy access to literature and documents in the public domain and under copyright protection, providing Chinese scholars with an increasingly favorable environment for sophisticated studies on international law.

Thus, empirical studies that are rich and academically rigorous have become possible. These include basic academic research methods as well as studies of some specialized branches, such as treaty law, maritime law and the law of international organizations. In the past decade, the field of international law has rapidly developed in China in terms of coverage and sophistication.

However, studies on the “Belt and Road” initiative obviously face more serious challenges and higher requirements. The problem is, unlike past research devoted to relatively united orders or systems, research on the “Belt and Road” will be dealing with a loosely established legal framework.

Research on conflict law may take the Geneva Conventions as a basis, while studies on global and regional trade orders may focus on WTO, the European Union or NAFTA. Because it is dealing with a loosely established framework, research on the “Belt and Road” initiative could lose focus.

Therefore, international legal studies on the “Belt and Road” have to acknowledge the reality of a decentralized legal structure and diverse geography. Given these conditions, decentralized and diverse research is needed to analyze the current situation, assess risk, conduct comparative studies and make policy suggestions.

In this way, research on the legal aspects of the “Belt and Road” initiative can overcome an overdependence on multilateral treaties or international norms and customs as the sole subjects of research.

Instead, it should focus more on bilateral treaties as well as regional or bilateral customs, which can be observed by examining a state’s legal practices in foreign economic activities and trade. This can also be seen in the extent to which a state adopts certain principles of law in its interactions with other states.

The most significant and practical legal research on the “Belt and Road” initiative should be decentralized and precisely targeted rather than general and theoretical. Although general and theoretical studies are still necessary, targeted studies lay a solid foundation for practices and overall studies.

The focus of the branch should be on mechanisms, experience, assessments and suggestions based on individual states, issues and fields. And all these will no doubt draw the attention of researchers to some nations that had previously been largely overlooked.

Sophisticated studies also require the transformation of research methods from static and simple to dynamic and sophisticated.

First, economic activities within the “Belt and Road” initiative should be conducted based on recognition. Studies on the current situation, written rules and practical experience of operation in host countries will provide a relatively precise forecast of future behaviors. Such policy foresight offers a way to avoid the economic and social costs of blind decisions.

Second, practical partnerships between China and countries along the “Belt and Road” are also of significance. Policymakers at home need to become aware of problems that emerge during Chinese enterprises’ economic activities in a timely fashion.

Feedback and suggestions for resolving such problems may be relayed to the host countries through entrepreneurial, industrial and even diplomatic channels.

Last, further construction of bilateral economic relations based on partnerships should be carried out through communication, dialogue, negotiation and other means, so that the host countries may change the rules that are not favorable to economic cooperation and social development.


He Zhipeng is a professor from the School of Law at Jilin University, and Sun Lu is an associate research fellow from the Jilin Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor: Yu Hui

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