China unveiled the first comprehensive Foreign Relations Law since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  This law came into effect in July 2023 and lays out the guiding principles, fundamental positions, red lines, and institutional framework for China’s foreign policy orientation.

The law also establishes general regulations for developing China’s foreign relations to achieve its national objectives. These objectives include domestic political stability; sustainable economic and social development; sovereign security, territorial integrity, and national unification.

Any organization or individual who commits acts that are detrimental to China’s national interests in violation of this Law and other applicable laws in the course of engaging in international exchanges shall be held accountable by this law.

For China, the promulgation and implementation of the Foreign Relations Law is a demonstration of its strategic transparency and the openness of its diplomacy. The new law is specifically aimed at countering foreign “interference, sanctions and sabotage”. It also demonstrates China’s resolve that it would not tolerate any actions from the outside world that may threaten China’s national interest and sovereignty. China believes that speeding up the building of the legal system concerning foreign affairs will help it to effectively deal with risks and challenges and presents China as a responsible rising nation that champions peace, development, cooperation, and mutual benefit via a law-based approach.

The Law stipulates that China’s foreign relations will be conducted under the guidance of Xi Jinping Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, along with other ideological doctrines. The law categorically states that China will pursue an independent and peaceful foreign policy and oppose “hegemonism and power politics” as well as the use of force or threat of use of force in international relations. The law also reiterates China’s support for multilateralism in all areas of foreign relations including trade. Although it was rushed through the legislative process following the exchange of sanctions between the EU, the UK, Canada, the US, and China in March of this year, the work on the new Law on Foreign Affairs had started much earlier.

Developing a legal framework to counter foreign sanctions and the extraterritorial effects of other countries’ domestic legislation has been one of China’s legislative priorities over the last few months.

The Foreign Affairs Law came into effect alongside the new anti-espionage law which was announced earlier in 2023. Both these laws codify what is already in practice, and are a continuation of political reforms that started after the 20th Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress in 2022. China’s top diplomat Wang Yi said the new law met an “urgent need” to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests.

The Foreign Affairs Law will enable China to take measures to counter and restrict actions that endanger the national interest while empowering its Cabinet, the State Council, to come up with regulations and systems to enforce countermeasures. Traditionally, China is a country that values harmony and is reluctant to resort to countermeasures. The tools and measures have always existed to counter moves by foes to harm Chinese interests, but what the new law has changed is the express political will of the Chinese leadership to enforce them and reciprocate in measure to the moves made by the West that are deemed injurious to state interests. The law will also serve to guide diplomats, providing consistency in their actions and responses and ensuring that diplomatic practices have legal standing.

In recent years China has pursued a more assertive foreign policy including pushing its own diplomatic and security architecture to rival the United States-led system of alliances, multilateral treaties, and institutions. This includes the Global Security Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, and most recently, the Global Civilization Initiative. Beijing has also taken part in massive infrastructure investment projects through the Belt and Road Initiative, along with setting up the Asian Development Bank and throwing its weight behind the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

China believes that the stronger China becomes, the greater its contribution to world peace and stability will be as it shuns the hegemony of big powers and supports peaceful settlement of disputes, strongly favors multilateralism, and opposes the threat of use of force in international relations. The new law is also in line with the concept of positivity in foreign relations including China’s development outlook, security concept, concept of civilization, as well as the systematic idea of building a community with a shared future for mankind. The law explicitly conveys China’s determination to pursue a path of peaceful development. It is an effort to calm the fears in some countries that a resurgent China would be a threat to other countries in the region and beyond.

According to Chinese leadership, the new law provides valuable stability to the current global governance system, which is affected by the counter-globalization trend and regional conflicts. The law explicitly states that the country has the obligation to fulfill treaties and agreements in good faith and clarifies that the country will take steps to implement sanction resolutions and relevant measures with binding force adopted by the United Nations Security Council in accordance with Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations. That is to firmly uphold the UN-centered international system and the international order based on international law, thus steadfastly defending international fairness and justice.

The law, however, comes at a crucial time when US-China bilateral relations have plummeted to a new low. Despite Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Beijing, US President Joe Biden did not hesitate in calling Xi a ‘dictator’ muddying the atmosphere between the two nations. The growing trade war, consistent efforts by the West, led by the US to paint China as a threat to global peace and security, and the declared intention of the USA to contain the rise of China, has perhaps necessitated the strong response that has come in the form of new laws including the Law on Foreign Affairs.

As expected the Western powers immediately showed a negative reaction in an attempt to discredit China’s intention.

China’s contention is that the USA has always used legal action under its own domestic laws to repeatedly trample on international law and norms through the use of “long-arm jurisdiction”.

Imposing unilateral sanctions on other countries, like Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia among a long list of other countries has led to great suffering n those countries due to these unilateral measures. It was, therefore, time for China to protect itself by formulating and imposing domestic legislation that would give legal cover to the conduct of foreign policy by China and safeguard its vital national interests.

For the first term of President Xi, Foreign policy was not at the forefront and the top priority of China remained internal political stability and socio-economic development. Now that economic growth and social stability have been assured, the focus has turned to Foreign Affairs to prepare the stage for China’s rejuvenation by the middle of this century. This requires the leadership’s complete focus on some of the potentially explosive nature of three of China’s most pressing foreign policy challenges: decreasing tensions with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Southeast Asian states over territorial claims in the South China Sea, and last but not the least the peaceful reunification of Taiwan to achieve its second centennial goal by 2050. The new Law on Foreign Affairs is one of the tools employed by China to ensure its dream of rejuvenation of the motherland is achieved through peaceful means of removing obstacles one by one.

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