Foreign Relations & International Law

China’s Strategic Use of Research Funding on International Law

Anthea Roberts
Wednesday, November 8, 2017, 7:00 AM

Many reports have focused on the way China’s government uses censorship to suppress certain views in its academic sphere, both of Chinese academics and foreign presses. But how does it use carrots as opposed to sticks?

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Many reports have focused on the way China’s government uses censorship to suppress certain views in its academic sphere, both of Chinese academics and foreign presses. But how does it use carrots as opposed to sticks? Given China’s rising international importance, it is worth considering the topics the Chinese government is encouraging its international law academics to study through the strategic use of research funding.

When I undertook a comparison of international law academics in different states in my book “Is International Law International?,” the way in which international law academics were often concentrated in different subfields was a notable issue. In the United States, for instance, it is common to find international lawyers who focus on foreign relations law, international law in domestic courts, human rights law, international criminal law, the use of force and international humanitarian law. There are some international trade lawyers but not many investment treaty lawyers. Law of the sea experts are almost entirely absent from most top U.S. schools. In contrast, many international law academics at elite Chinese law schools specialize in international economic law and the law of the sea.

The government’s strategic use of research funding helps, in part, to explain the subject matter foci of the Chinese international legal academy. There are three main sources of research funds for academic legal projects in China: the National Social Science Fund of China (NSSFC), the Ministry of Education Fund and the Ministry of Justice Fund. The NSSFC is an accessible example because it puts out an annual call for proposals for academic funding accompanied by a list of recommended research topics. The People’s Daily Online reports that Chinese officials intend for the NSSFC to support strategic research concerning economic and social development in China. The deputy head of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee (sometimes also translated as the “Propaganda Department”), Wang Xiaohui, stated the results would be useful for the government in its decision-making processes.

Using information available online, I compiled a list of the international law topics included in the NSSFC’s Recommended Research Topics (in Chinese) for 2009-14, and in the list of Funded Research Proposals (in Chinese) for 2007-14. (For full detail on the topics, including translations, and how I selected and categorized them, see Appendix D in my book.) Figure 1 shows which topics were recommended, and Figure 2 shows which projects were actually funded. As these charts illustrate, the Chinese government incentivizes Chinese international law academics to focus their research on certain areas of national interest, including most prominently, international economic law and the law of the sea. And within these topics, the government often creates incentives for them to develop a nationalist bent in their research.

Figure 1. China: Recommended Topics for Research 2009-14

Figure 2. China: Funded Research Proposals 2007-14

International economic law forms the largest category in both Recommended Research Topics and Funded Research Proposals. As David Shambaugh observes, economic motivations are a distinguishing feature of Chinese foreign policy. Indeed, in China, international law does not exist as a unitary subject. Instead, it is divided into three subjects: public international law; private international law; and international economic law. The preponderance of this economic focus should come as no surprise in view of China’s 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), its considerable involvement in WTO dispute resolution, and its deliberate efforts to build capacity in this area. China is also the second most prolific signatory of investment treaties in the world, and Chinese companies, including state-owned enterprises, are beginning to lodge claims against foreign states, while the Chinese government is now also being subject to claims under the dispute resolution mechanisms of these investment treaties. Although trade issues make up the bulk of this international economic law topic, investment issues have increasingly gained attention in recent years.

Coming in second, a significant number of these topics deal with the law of the sea and show a particular nationalist bent that strongly emphasizes the protection of China’s interests in the South and East China Sea. This includes the Recommended Research Topic “Studies on the Protection of China’s Interest in the South China Sea within China’s Jurisdiction” and funded proposals such as “Legal Studies on the Protection of China’s Interest in the South China Sea and the Cooperation Mechanism Between Mainland China and Taiwan,” “Studies on the Strategies for the Protection of China’s Core National Interests in the South China Sea” and “Studies on the Legal Strategies for Protecting China’s Sovereignty over Nansha Islands Under New Circumstances.” As one Chinese academic explained to me, the Recommended Research Topics are sometimes “near-sighted” because they are designed to help with the immediate needs of China, rather than to plan ahead for future or potential problems. The number of funded proposals relating to the South China Sea thus grew from zero in 2009 to six or seven in 2014 as the issue’s salience increased after 2010, particularly with the initiation of the arbitration under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by the Philippines in 2013.

International environmental law is also a significant issue in this Chinese funding, paralleling the efforts China has made on this topic on the global stage. China argues that developed countries should bear the primary responsibility for global environmental protection because higher levels of industrialization mean disproportionate contribution to climate change while at the same time the greater resources enable investment in technologies to reduce environmental harm. Although accepting of nonbinding targets for emissions cuts, China has strongly supported a “common but differentiated responsibilities” approach to dealing with climate change, and thus has funded proposals on topics like “Fairness Issues in the Construction of New Order in International Climate Law.”

The lack of focus on other subjects is also revealing. Topics dominating international law research in other countries like the United States, such as international law in domestic courts, the use of force, international criminal law and international humanitarian law, receive much less attention in China. International human rights law was not absent from the lists, but neither was it of central importance. Roughly the same number of human rights proposals were funded as proposals on China’s interests in the Arctic and Antarctica, and just slightly more than those funded for international dispute resolution, the protection of overseas interests and citizens or cultural heritage. Some of the funded proposals reflected concerns about China’s interaction with international human rights bodies, like the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Through its strategic use of funding, among other measures, the Chinese government has sought to promote research on international law fields and issues of pressing national import. As one aspiring Chinese international law academic told me, from looking at these topics, “you will know where the money goes” and, from that, you will know “where the academy goes.” These incentives not only affect academics who receive funding, but also all those who shape their research agendas with an eye to applying for funding, being promoted or achieving certain academic markers of success. In many law schools, the grant of NSSFC or other government research funding is a precondition for applying for a professorship and a major factor in securing certain awards, such as the Ministry of Education’s New Century Excellent Talents Supporting Plan.

This strategy also encourages Chinese international law academics to analyze issues from the perspective of how best to protect China’s interests. Consider the following funded proposals on the Arctic and Antarctic: “Studies on the Legal Issues in the Arctic Shipping Routes and China’s National Interests,” “International Legal Studies on China’s Interests in the Arctic,” “Studies on China’s Arctic Shipping Routes and the Building of ‘a Great Maritime Power,’” “Studies on the Construction of an International Legal Order in the Arctic and the Expansion of China’s Interests,” “Studies on China’s Legal Path to Strengthen Presence in the Arctic,” “Studies on the Legal Issues in Navigation in the Arctic from the Perspective of China’s Interests,” and “Studies on the Legal Protection of China’s Interests in Antarctica.” Both the theme and the perspective seem pretty clear.

One likely result of the strategic use of research funding is China’s development of a strong cohort of international lawyers in fields like international economic law and the law of the sea. China has also been giving its academics incentives to pursue graduate studies in Western states and to publish in foreign and transnational journals. Thus, when issues of special concern to China arise—such as the legality of the UNCLOS tribunal’s assumption of jurisdiction in the South China Sea arbitration—China can draw on a stable of legal experts who are well positioned to write on these topics and, moreover, can write in English in a way that reaches foreign audiences.

By contrast, these issues do not receive the same prominence in some other academies, such as the US legal academy. For instance, most of the top U.S. law schools have not recruited international lawyers with law of the sea expertise in the last generation, despite the importance of this topic. Perhaps this will change as the law of the sea is reframed as a serious national security issue. But the potential consequences of the different—and sometimes opposing—foci of international law academics in different states are worth pondering, particularly when one observes an asymmetry between the approaches of a rising regional hegemon, like China, and a declining global hegemon, like the United States.

Anthea Roberts is a Professor at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University. She is an expert on public international law, international economic law, and comparative international law. She is Chair of the Geoeconomics Working Group at the ANU College of Asia and Pacific.

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