IDS Research Report 85

Theory and Practice in China’s Approaches to Multilateralism and Critical Reflections on the Western ‘Rules-Based International Order’

Published on 26 October 2021

China is the subject of Western criticism for its supposed disregard of the rules-based international order. Such a charge implies that China is unilateralist.

The aim in this study is to explain how China does in fact have a multilateral approach to international relations. China’s core idea of a community of shared future of humanity shows that it is aware of the need for a universal foundation for world order. The Research Report focuses on explaining the Chinese approach to multilateralism from its own internal perspective, with Chinese philosophy and history shaping its view of the nature of rules, rights, law, and of institutions which should shape relationships.

A number of case studies show how the Chinese perspectives are implemented, such as with regards to development finance, infrastructure projects (especially the Belt and Road Initiative), shaping new international organisations (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), climate change, cyber-regulation and Chinese participation in the United Nations in the field of human rights and peacekeeping. Looking at critical Western opinion of this activity, we find speculation around Chinese motives. This is why a major emphasis is placed on a hermeneutic approach to China which explains how it sees its intentions. The heart of the Research Report is an exploration of the underlying Chinese philosophy of rulemaking, undertaken in a comparative perspective to show how far it resembles or differs from the Western philosophy of rulemaking.

Anthony Carty is Emeritus Professor of International Law, previously Cheng Yu Tung Chair of Law at Tsinghua University, Beijing Institute of Technology School of Law and Sir Y K Pau Chair of Law at Hong Kong University Faculty of Law. He is a special legal advisor to the European Parliament. 

From the 1980s, he was involved in the field of law and development, publishing with Palgrave, together with Hans Singer, Conflict and Change in the 1990s, and now with NYU Press, an anthology, Law and Development. He is author of many academic works. Recent publications include Philosophy of International Law (2017, Edinburgh University Press). He has published extensively on legal aspects of the South China Sea Island disputes, published in Jus Gentium: Journal of International Legal History 2019, no.1 and no.2, and Morality and Responsibility of Rulers: European and Chinese Origins of a Rule of Law as Justice for World Order (2018, Oxford University Press).

Cite this publication

Carty, A. and Gu, J. (2021) Theory and Practice in China’s Approaches to Multilateralism and Critical Reflections on the Western ‘Rules-Based International Order’, IDS Research Report 85, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, DOI: 10.19088/IDS.2021.057


Jing Gu

Research Fellow, Centre Director

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published by
Institute of Development Studies


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