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  • Abigail Darwish

The Contestation of Liberal International Order: The CCP and its Foreign Relations Law

This article was written by Abigail Darwish, Pinsker Centre Policy Fellow '23, and was originally published in International Relations Today  


Despite hopes earlier this year that tensions would thaw between the US and China, Beijing has seemingly changed course in recent weeks. This new direction—or deterioration—in relations has been a result of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) enactment of the Foreign Relations Law (FRL), which took effect on 1 July. The FRL is a “framework law” — essentially a set of obligations and principles left to the interpretation and implementation of local and regional authorities. It codifies “all aspects” of China’s foreign policy stances, granting them “greater legal backing”, and thereby greater legitimacy. The Law especially focuses on so-called ‘countermeasures’ against any actions that infringe upon the state’s ‘sovereignty’ and ‘security’. The Law has understandably created concern that it is another malign attempt by China to challenge the Liberal International Order (LIO) and breathe life into Xi Jinping’s long-term aspiration for a “China-centric” world order; however, perhaps more pressingly, it has led to returned fears of heightened US-China confrontation, exacerbating already volatile relations.


The FRL comprises six chapters, ranging from the objectives of China’s foreign relations to the strategies of “safeguarding” the development of those relations. Its comprehensiveness in dealing with all aspects of Beijing’s diplomatic positions has led some political analysts to dub it a form of “umbrella legislation”.


China’s most senior foreign relations official, Wang Yi (Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Party’s Central Committee) elaborated on the significance of the FRL. Yi stated that the Law will “provide China with a legal basis for exercising legitimate powers against sanctions and interference”—or, as he described it earlier, a “legal toolbox” to prevent foreign powers “bullying” China, and more generally to oppose “hegemonism and power politics, unilateralism [and] protectionism.” Underpinning the need to implement such a law are, according to Yi, the apparent “shortcomings and gaps” in China’s pre-existing legal system concerning its foreign relations—especially in regards to “safeguarding” China’s “national sovereignty, security, and development interests.”


Source: The Japan Times


It is worth noting that Beijing has in recent years passed a series of laws focused on similar concerns: Law on Countering Foreign Sanctions (June 2021); the Measures on Blocking Improper Extraterritorial Application of Foreign Laws and Measures (January 2021) and the Provisions on the List of Unreliable Entities (September 2020). As such, the FRL is part and parcel of Beijing’s approach to challenging the status quo in the international arena. However, what makes the FRL more significant is that it is the first time China has codified its “fundamental foreign policy principles and positions” into law since the CCP’s founding in 1949.


Interestingly—or rather, paradoxically—the FRL pledges Beijing’s commitment to the LIO, whilst simultaneously projecting a desire for a world more dominated by China. Article 19 of the FRL states that the CCP will adhere to the “fundamental norms” of international relations and respect the international order, under the “principles” of the United Nations; however, Article 33 stresses China’s “right” to take corresponding countermeasures and restrictive measures” not only against acts that violate international law and norms but those that “endanger China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.” Whilst it does not specify what such transgressions would be, invariably the controversial status of Taiwan is at the forefront of the CCP’s thinking. Questions on the status of Taiwan have been a long-lasting point of tension between the US and China, most recently manifested through the CCP’s anger at the Biden administration approving its tenth arms sale worth, $440 million, to Taiwan. If Beijing enshrines a commitment against the supposed violation of its sovereignty, then the FRL may be a catalyst for worsened US-China tensions on the Taiwan issue.


Beyond threatening the security of its neighbours, the principles of the FRL are also the continuation of China’s undermining of the LIO. Beijing’s stated commitment to the values of the LIO is a useful red herring that it can deploy whenever China is accused of pursuing its actual goal— the subversion of the current world order in favour of a Chinese-led one. Nothing exemplifies this better than China’s pledge to respect the values of the UN, whilst—in the words of a UN Human Rights report—enacting “serious human rights violations” in the Xinjiang province, against its Uighur population. In effect, the FRL should be an alarming reminder to the West that China is indeed its adversary and will continue to challenge the LIO and the values it honours. The West should therefore not be fooled by attempts from the CCP to argue otherwise.


Abigail Darwish is a third-year History student at University College London and a Fellow for the Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

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