The United States, China, and International Law

Principal Investigator: Jacques deLisle, Professor of Law

Co-Principal Investigator: William W. Burke-White, Deputy Dean and Professor of Law, and Richard Perry Professor and Inaugural Director, Perry World House

Lead School: Penn Law

Penn Partners: Center for the Study of Contemporary China, Perry World House

Chinese Partners: Tsinghua University (Law School); Shanghai Jiaotong University (Law School)

Project Background

The contemporary international legal consists largely of rules and institutions created or affirmed in the Post-World War II Era, principally underwritten by the United States and its allies, and attaining unprecedented global reach in the post-Cold War period. Today, the rise of new powers – and especially China – poses challenges to and opportunities for the status quo legal order and its capacity to address international economic, political, and other problems.

Until relatively recently, China rejected the international legal order that the U.S. and Western states forged in the postwar period. Following the beginning of China's Reform Era in the late 1970s, China sought to join international legal regimes on status quo-accepting terms. More recently, a more powerful and confident China has become more assertive in pressing reformist, even revisionist views of international law. The U.S. has generally welcomed China's fuller engagement in the international system – including its legal aspects – and has viewed engagement as a means to promote China's acceptance of existing structures and underlying norms.

At the same time, the U.S. has grown wary of China's agenda and its possible threat to an order that the U.S. sees as providing international public goods and serving U.S. and wider global interests. Even if that order generally can accommodate a rising China, substantive law and institutions will have to adapt, with significant implications for existing rules and institutions.