What China’s Foreign Relations Law Tells Us About Its View of the International Community 

September 11, 2023 | 10:48 am
Javier Quiroga/Unsplash
Robert Rust
China Analyst

In the wake of the BRICS Summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in South Africa, China’s recently-promulgated Foreign Affairs Law is worth a closer look. What can it tell us about China’s foreign policy goals and what its ideal global community looks like? 

China’s new Foreign Affairs Law, which went into force on July 1st, formalizes its foreign policy practice, codifying the goals, priorities and guiding principles of its engagement with the world.  

Chinese leadership sees that world as being in a state of “turbulence not seen in a hundred years”. Xi Jinping first used a variation on this phrase in 2014, and its current form (百年未有之大变局) has been a staple of his speeches since 2017. In his report to the 20th Party Congress last fall, Xi said that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is taking the world’s state of turbulence into account when coordinating its strategies on achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” 

The centrality of this belief helps explain both the promulgation of the Foreign Affairs Law and its content. The Law emphasizes the importance of multilateralism (governments working together to solve problems), amicable relations with every class of country and, most importantly, maintaining an international system centered on a strong United Nations. The Law makes it clear that China wants a greater part in shaping the rules of global governance, and to continue to promote its own international initiatives within that system. That is now, legally, its strategy against international turbulence. 

China’s historical multilateralism 

China’s modern foreign affairs strategy has a history of using international organizations to advance its global standing. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Republic of China held China’s seat in the United Nations. Efforts by the PRC to have its seat restored were blocked by the United States. But as more countries joined the UN, support for the PRC grew, and it became impossible to prevent deliberation on Chinese representation in the UN. Finally, in 1971, the required two-thirds majority in the General Assembly voted to give the PRC China’s seat. The origins of China’s current global initiatives and relationships with the “Global South” can, in many ways, be traced back to this process, which began at the 1955 Bandung Conference and culminated in the 1971 UN vote.  

That block of developing countries was eventually termed the “third world” by Mao Zedong. In 1974, he divided the world into a first (United States, Soviet Union), a second (Japan, Europe, Canada) and a third world (everyone else). Deng Xiaoping elaborated on this classification in a speech to the UN General Assembly in April 1974, calling for an end to colonialism and imperialism and viciously attacking the Soviet Union for perpetuating both. 

Fifty years later, China is striving to maintain strong relationships with what we now call the “Global South” or “Global Majority” (shades of the term Global Majority can be found in Mao’s original exposition on the third world).  

Xi Jinping’s focus on the struggle against turbulence and chaos also has significant parallels in Deng’s 1974 speech, specifically his claim that “…the whole world is in turbulence and unrest. The situation is one of “great disorder under heaven…”. Deng is referring to the Chinese concept of tianxia, a Chinese theory of international relations that sees the world as one unit wherein participants (states) must work towards cooperation. Scholars have argued that the tianxia system is a “non-world”, a stage in the progression towards an ideal singular global unit without the divided anarchy of nation-states. 

That is highly theoretical international relations scholarship, but the idea of a “community with a shared future for mankind” helps to explain the Chinese desire for robust multilateral institutions. Accordingly, the description of global chaos should not be seen as a new ideology tied to Xi Jinping, but rather as a pillar of China’s approach to international relations post-1949. 

The Foreign Relations Law 

China is now the world’s second largest economy and, accordingly, has a significant presence and influence in the United Nations and other multilateral organizations. This is common; increased influence on multilateral governance tends to parallel a country’s economic development. A 2021 policy brief from the Norwegian Institute of the International Affairs, which examined China’s role in international organizations, predicted that China would continue working to make multilateral governance more reflective of Chinese values and priorities. Furthermore, it predicted that those same organizations would increasingly be sites of conflict between the United States and China. The Foreign Affairs Law validates the former prediction.  

The 45-article law is split into six chapters. Chapter one outlines the fundamental priorities and principles guiding Chinese foreign policy. Of note is the restatement of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These were originally articulated by Zhou Enlai in a meeting with an Indian delegation in 1953, and later included in the preamble to China’s constitution. 

Chapter two outlines the foreign affairs-related authorities of various organs within both the Party and government. For example, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission is responsible for setting the overall direction of Chinese foreign policy, while the National People’s Congress is responsible for agreements with foreign governments and exchanges with foreign parliaments. Lastly, provinces/autonomous regions/municipalities under the central government (cities like Bejing and Chongqing) can all carry out foreign exchange within limited parameters with central government approval.

Chapters three and four deal with the goals and tasks of developing foreign relations and the “foreign relations system” respectively. The third chapter contains emphasis on building an international system centered on the UN and continuing to build Chinese influence within multilateral organizations. China, it says, adheres to the global governance concepts of “joint discussion, joint contribution, and shared benefits”. In short, the ideal international system is one based on inclusion where benefits are shared equally. It also codifies China’s global outreach initiatives, like the Belt and Road Initiative, Global Development Initiative, and Global Security Initiative.  

Chapter four deals with the foreign-related sides of China’s legal system, codifying four main priorities that were previously outlined in a Xi Jinping speech to the Politburo in December 2021. These are the application of Chinese laws abroad, the Chinese legal system’s capacity in applying foreign laws domestically, increasing domestic knowledge and competence when it comes to foreign and international law and, perhaps most importantly, strengthening legislation protecting Chinese interests from foreign sanctions. Finally, Chapter five outlines the support structure for China’s system of foreign relations, including funding and promotion of China’s foreign relations system both domestically and internationally. Chapter six simply states that the law takes effect on July 1st, 2023.  

Struggle and misunderstanding 

Some analysts have argued that China’s emphasis on struggle in the face of global turbulence is incompatible with the harmonious international system it claims to want to build. Yet as outlined above, that view of a chaotic international situation, like the belief in the importance of multilateral organizations, is not new. The emphasis on struggle reflects the Party’s focus on strengthening these institutions in the face of chaos. To China, prioritizing struggle is not necessarily incompatible with a responsible international role. The end goal of that struggle is introducing more balance to a system it sees as built almost exclusively on US-created rules and norms.  

Chinese analysis elaborates on that divide, focusing on the feeling that other countries are trying to restrict China’s development. According to Wang Ming of the China Institute of International Studies, China is contending with increasing unilateralism and protectionism, and an increasingly challenging international environment overall. The Law takes a step towards further clarifying China’s methods of meeting those challenges, and the goals of its foreign engagement overall. Huo Zhengxin, professor of International Law at China University of Political Science and Law, called the Law a response to foreign countries “building walls” and “breaking chains” (obviously referring to the ongoing US de-risking/decoupling process from China). This “unilateralism”, he said, seriously hurts global development and the international community. 

The challenges mentioned by leaders, analysts and the Law itself stem, mainly, from the increasingly tense US-China relationship. China has repeatedly emphasized the importance of a multipolar world built on multilateral institutions; when Xi Jinping met Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Beijing last month, the Chinese press readout quoted Xi as saying that great power competition is incompatible with the times. To China, “competition” “…implies that one side or the other will be destroyed.” 

But if great power competition unfortunately turns out to be here to stay, and that competition does increasingly permeate international organizations like the UN, then China is clearly determined to make its mark on those institutions and do its utmost to influence the norms and rules that guide them.  

The historical parallels to the PRC’s accession to the UN help to explain the importance of multilateral governance to the Chinese. The Foreign Affairs Law wants to strengthen that system and exert greater influence on it, while also making it more “democratic” by pushing for multipolarity and greater inclusion of developing countries. The PRC was able to enter that system through its increased inclusion of what was then the Third World, now the “Global Majority”. This law makes it clear that, in the struggle with global turbulence, China will continue to place importance on strong relationships with all states, seeking a ballast against what it sees as increasing hostility from the United States and its allies.  

EDITORIAL CORRECTION, 9/13/23: A previous version of this blog omitted the meaning of the acronym for BRICS Summit. The BRICS Summit is a meeting of the foreign ministers of Brazil, Russia, India, and China that began convening in 2009.