China has recently enacted a new foreign relations law aimed at bolstering the government’s legal foundation for taking “countermeasures” against potential threats to its economic security, specifically in response to Western sanctions akin to those imposed on Russia. The law received approval from the National People’s Congress on June 28 and is scheduled to take effect from July 1, 2023.
Political Structures to counter western influence and boost domestic decision making
The introductory chapter outlines the fundamental political structures primarily influenced by Marxist-Leninist-Chinese principles upon which the new law is built. However, it also includes references to “opposition to hegemony and power politics.” This potentially paves the way for disputes, particularly with the United States. With this “opposition” about to be formally codified, it is expected that there will be forthcoming turbulence regarding the unipolar versus multipolar global concepts.
Nonetheless, the chapter also reaffirms China’s commitment to the “Purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter,” effectively recognizing the UN as the principal global authority independent of Washington. Consequently, it is foreseeable that there will be political disputes between the United States and China at the UN.
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The second chapter confirms the Standing Committee (SC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the supreme authority responsible for China’s foreign relations. The SC, currently composed of seven members elected by the Central Committee, is chaired by General Secretary Xi Jinping. It is noteworthy that despite recent remarks from US President Joe Biden referring to China as a “dictatorship,” the SC makes decisions collectively and through democratic means.
The new law designates the State Council as the entity holding overall responsibility for China’s foreign relations, including treaty signing, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs manages Chinese diplomacy. Moreover, the law delegates certain decision-making authority “within a specific scope” and “according to their powers and functions” to China’s various provincial governments. This aspect carries significance, especially for countries neighboring China, such as Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.
Blueprint for foreign relations
The third chapter affirms China’s commitment to pursuing various global initiatives, including global development initiatives, global security initiatives, and global civilization initiatives. These initiatives encompass a comprehensive, multi-level, wide-ranging, and three-dimensional approach to external affairs. While these initiatives can be broadly associated with the Belt and Road Initiative, the UN Security Council, and the Global Civilization Initiative, they are not limited to these frameworks.
The chapter also addresses the dichotomy between unipolar and multipolar systems, with China opting for the latter as a guiding principle in its foreign relations. China aims to uphold and practice multilateralism, actively participating in the reform and construction of the global governance system. This stance diverges from the US position of seeking to maintain global dominance and has the potential to give rise to further economic conflicts between the two nations.
The new foreign relations law outlines China’s strategy for promoting multilateralism, which includes adhering to the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits in global governance. China aims to participate in the formulation of international rules, promote the democratization of international relations, and foster the development of economic globalisation in an open, inclusive, universally beneficial, balanced, and win-win direction. Notably, the mention of “democracy” in international relations is noteworthy.
Furthermore, the chapter reiterates China’s commitment to the UN Security Council. Regarding human rights, China affirms its adherence to the universality of human rights in combination with its own reality. It expresses its dedication to promoting comprehensive and coordinated development in the field of human rights through international exchanges and cooperation based on equality and mutual respect. In essence, China’s foreign relations law establishes a clear link between human rights and economic development.
China’s commitments to actively participate in global environmental and climate governance are also confirmed in this chapter. It emphasises the strengthening of green and low-carbon international cooperation, the construction of a global ecological civilisation, and the promotion of a fair, reasonable, cooperative, and globally inclusive environmental and climate governance system. It is worth noting that China is making significant progress in meeting its renewable energy targets, particularly in solar and wind power, with achievements anticipated five years ahead of schedule.
Additionally, the chapter addresses the handling of foreign aid and grants. China’s foreign aid, including loans and grants related to the Belt and Road Initiative, is based on principles of respecting the sovereignty of other countries, non-interference in their internal affairs, and abstaining from attaching political conditions.
The reference to “respecting sovereignty” has been previously noted in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, although Russia does not receive Chinese loans. In this context, “respecting sovereignty” also implies refraining from providing loans that would impede recipient nations’ ability to govern themselves and determine their own political structures. This stance indirectly critiques the US position, which often links aid to commitments to democracy.
Navigating geopolitical challenges
Chapter Four of the new Foreign Relations law focuses on China’s external relations and has drawn significant attention from Western analysts. It emphasises the importance of the legal system in upholding China’s foreign relations concept. The law articulates China’s commitment to promoting the rule of law domestically and internationally, enhancing legislation in areas related to foreign affairs, and establishing a comprehensive legal framework for handling foreign-related matters. While Western media has referred to this as a “tightening” of regulations, it is important to consider that “strengthen” in the Chinese context can also mean “evolve” or “improve.”
Article 32 of the law clarifies that China will strengthen the implementation and application of laws and regulations in foreign-related fields while abiding by the basic principles of international law and norms of international relations. This includes taking law enforcement and judicial measures to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests, as well as protecting the legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens and organisations.
It is crucial to note that the term “strengthen” does not inherently imply negative connotations, as it is often understood in the West. China’s foreign investment laws have consistently evolved and improved over the past three decades, with the country becoming the second-largest recipient of foreign direct investment in 2022.
Article 33 of the law has raised concerns among critics of China. It asserts China’s right to take corresponding countermeasures and restrictive measures against actions that violate international law and basic norms of international relations, thereby endangering China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests. The State Council and its departments are responsible for formulating necessary administrative regulations and departmental rules, establishing relevant work systems and mechanisms, strengthening coordination, and implementing appropriate countermeasures and restrictive measures.
The specific measures are not elaborated upon, making the fears surrounding them subjective. However, the China Foreign Investment Law of 2019 provides some insight. It states that China generally does not expropriate foreign investments, but fair and reasonable compensation may be payable in exceptional cases where expropriation is necessary for the public interest.
In essence, if China faces arbitrary sanctions or tariff measures without recourse to established international laws and mechanisms such as the WTO dispute resolution process, it reserves the right to implement corresponding measures. It does not specify these measures as they would likely depend on the nature of the sanctions imposed on China.
Notably, the law emphasizes that China would prefer to work through existing global dispute resolution mechanisms rather than initiating sanctions. Therefore, the “China Risk” lies in the actions of lawmakers in the United States, Europe, and other nations, and not in China’s own actions. Foreign investors’ perception of their own governments’ strategies towards China plays a crucial role in assessing the risks involved.
Chapter Four also addresses China’s stance on Taiwan, reiterating the One-China Principle, and highlights the Five Principles for Peaceful Coexistence formulated in 1953. These principles encompass the mutual recognition and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, as well as the promotion of peaceful coexistence.
Regarding consular and diplomatic foreign officials and properties, the law grants corresponding privileges and immunities to foreign diplomatic missions, officials of foreign countries, and international organizations in accordance with relevant laws, treaties, and agreements. Aggressive actions towards foreign powers, reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion, are categorically ruled out.
The law also affirms China’s commitment to protecting the lawful rights and interests of foreigners and foreign organizations in China, while emphasizing the state’s right to allow or refuse entry, stay, and residence of foreigners based on the law. Foreigners and foreign organizations in China are expected to abide by Chinese laws and not engage in activities that endanger China’s national security, harm public interests, or disrupt public order.
The chapter concludes with an emphasis on international legal and security cooperation. China expresses its commitment to strengthening multilateral and bilateral dialogue on the rule of law and promoting exchanges and cooperation with foreign countries in this domain.
Building elite teams to propel diplomatic success
Chapter Five of the Foreign Relations law highlights China’s financial commitment to its foreign relations and the establishment of a comprehensive guarantee system for foreign affairs. It emphasises the importance of strengthening the ability to develop foreign relations while safeguarding national interests.
The “fund guarantee mechanism” mentioned in the law aims to align with the requirements of developing foreign relations and the level of national economic development. This mechanism likely pertains to China’s foreign aid policies and ensures the availability of necessary financial resources to support its foreign relations endeavours.
In addition, the law suggests the establishment of teams of professionals specializing in foreign affairs, signifying China’s intention to recruit personnel for its diverse range of institutions dedicated to handling foreign affairs. This demonstrates China’s focus on nurturing and developing talent in the field of foreign affairs to enhance its capabilities in diplomacy and international relations.
Furthermore, on a cultural level, the law emphasizes measures to promote the cultivation, utilisation, management, service, and guarantee of talents. This includes efforts to improve global understanding of China and foster exchanges and mutual learning among different human civilisations.
Chapter Six of the law simply refers to the effective implementation of the law, which is set to take effect on July 1st.
According to Suisheng Zhao, director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, the newly enacted law does not appear to introduce any additional measures to counter sanctions. Zhao believes that the law resembles more of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy declaration rather than being focused on anti-sanctions measures. He suggests that the timing of its release aligns with Xi’s efforts to counter what is perceived as US attempts to contain China.
Zhao explains that Xi aims to mobilise all available resources, including legal instruments, to counter Western containment. The new legislation not only incorporates Xi’s key foreign policy initiatives related to global security, development, and “civilisation” into law but also reaffirms China’s opposition to hegemony and power politics.
Zhao emphasises that while China seeks to repair relationships, it is unwilling to make concessions due to its concerns over tensions with the US and domestic economic challenges. Xi, facing various domestic issues, cannot afford to display any weakness. Therefore, he is determined to move forward on all fronts, including the use of legal documents, to demonstrate his position and defend China’s perceived national interest.