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The Illusion of a Rules-Based Global Order

International law today is powerful against the powerless, and powerless against the powerful. As long as this is true, a rules-based global order will remain a fig leaf for the forcible pursuit of national interests.

BANGKOK – When the Cold War ended, many pundits anticipated a new era in which geo-economics would determine geopolitics. As economic integration progressed, they predicted, the rules-based order would take root globally. Countries would comply with international law or incur high costs.

Today, such optimism looks more than a little naive. Even as the international legal system has ostensibly grown increasingly robust – underpinned, for example, by United Nations conventions, global accords like the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and the International Criminal Court – the rule of force has continued to trump the rule of law. Perhaps no country has taken more advantage of this state of affairs than China.

Consider China’s dam projects in the Mekong River, which flows from the Chinese-controlled Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. By building 11 mega-dams near the border of the Tibetan Plateau, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia, China has irreparably damaged the river system and wreaked broader environmental havoc, including saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta that has caused the delta to retreat.

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