As of Saturday, 1st of July, China's foreign policy is being conducted within the framework of the new 'Foreign policy Law', adopted by the Standing Committee of the National Peoples' Congress, the country's highest legislative body. It comes when China's relations with the United States are at their nadir, with a burgeoning bipartisan perception of China in the US as the principal adversary in the global arena. It is one of the very few areas where there is a conceptual agreement between the principal foes in the American domestic political scene, President Joe Biden and the former President Donald Trump. At least on this it appears that there is nary any sunlight between them. It does not bode well for the prospects of a peaceful world in the times ahead.
But what does the new 'Law' entail and why did China find it necessary to adopt and announce it at this point in time? At present there are 52 laws pertaining to foreign affairs in China and 150 others that contain clauses that influence how China relates to the rest of the world. However, now that China perceives that the adversarial competition with the US and the West in general is almost structural, it feels that there should be greater focus on buttressing its basic legal system further to address the growing concerns safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests. The Chinese authorities believe that the new law would help strengthen China's image as a responsible major global actor championing peace, development and mutual benefit. Also, according to a Western scholar, Moritz Rodolf of Yale Law School, the law affords Beijing a 'broad room' for interpretation on how to apply international treaties domestically.
The new law, adopted on 28th June, comprises six chapters incorporating 45 articles. While expounding China's positions on international exchanges, the law emphasizes that opening up to the outside world is necessary for 'mutual benefit' and is a fundamental policy of the government. It underscores China's commitment to developing foreign trade, actively promoting and protecting, in accordance with the law, inbound foreign investment, encouraging external economic cooperation including outbound investment, and promoting high-quality development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It affirms China's commitment to upholding the multilateral trading system, opposing unilateralism and protectionism, and working towards an open global economy.
Importantly, the law also focusses on safeguarding national sovereignty, and development. It iterates China's right to take appropriate measures to counter acts that endanger its sovereignty, security and development interests in violation of international law or norms governing international relations. It stresses that China will protect the legitimate rights and interests of its citizens, and its other overseas interests against any threat or infringement. Clearly these are indicators of big-power behavior, a status to which China obviously is persuaded that it has graduated.
Interestingly, the law promises to provide a 'Chinese approach to advancing the international cause of human rights'. It does not, however, elaborate on how the 'Chinese approach' would vary from currently held views on those values. The law critiques the countries of the West without naming them, who tend to extend overseas the 'longarm jurisdiction' of their domestic laws. It describes such 'long arm jurisdiction' as a 'showcase of hegemony', of which China is a victim. China strongly opposes these tendencies, the law stipulates.
This new piece of Chinese legislation was explained further by China's top diplomat, Wang Yi. In recent times, the US has imposed sanctions on a long list of Chinese companies and individuals, accusing them of complicity in human rights abuses, which China has vehemently denied. Some of these sanctions have gravely affected China's ability to access the critical technology required for semiconductors. Also, these have forced many Chinese firms to cut back on jobs and halt expansion plans. Terming such actions as 'bullying' from abroad, Wang Yi published a media article arguing that this law would help counter such acts. The law in his words, is "an important measure to strengthen the Communist Party Central Committee's centralized and unified leadership over foreign affairs". Wang Yi clarified his views on what really lay at the root of China's decision to propound the law in the manner that it did. He said: "Facing severe challenges, we must maintain our strategic capacity... and deftly use the weapon of the rule of law to continuously enrich and improve our legal 'toolkit' in the struggle with overseas (powers)."
The Law is also a creeping advance on the concept of President Xi Jinping's Zhang Guomeng or 'China Dream', which initially, at the outset of the last decade, comprised mainly a combination of the ideas of a 'new kind of big-power relationship with the US', a 'win-win' interaction with all other countries, and the stimulating of domestic demand for Chinese manufactures. Later, the idea of a broadened version of the 'Old Silk Road' was added, calling it the 'Belt and Road Initiative' (BRI), linking nations across continents with a network of communication and mega-projects. The current law also seems to incorporate the more recent thoughts on the 'Global Development Initiative', 'the Global Security Initiative', and the 'Global Civilization Initiative'. It seems that all these components are being constantly sharpened and honed as the 'China Dream' is being recalibrated, almost as a continuing process, to respond to changing international scenarios.
China obviously has come a long way since Deng Xiaoping's advice to his people to 'hide (their) capabilities' and 'bide (their) time'. The new law seems to suggest that the Chinese now believe China is not simply 'rising'; it has already 'risen'. Obviously, the Chinese sense that there is now a felt-necessity that values on such universal principles as 'human rights' are required to be projected as part of their external doctrine, even if these be formulated within the paradigm of a 'Chinese approach'. Nations and peoples will look to a greater understanding of what these values would entail and to what extent these would be in consonance with their current aspirations. The proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating. It is evident of course that China is quietly moving to position itself pivotally on the international scene. Global politics of the near future will be largely determined by how the West, and in particular the US, reacts to this phenomenon.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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