This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.
In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the term ‘rule of law in international relations’ to describe the Chinese government’s vision for the interaction between states within the international order. He said:
We should jointly promote the rule of law in international relations (国际关系法治化). We should urge all parties to abide by international law and well-recognised basic principles governing international relations…There should not be double standards when applying the law. We should jointly uphold the authority and sanctity of international law and the international order.
The term is related to – but used in distinction from – existing concepts of international law (国际法) and international rule of law (国际法治). The Chinese government’s application of ‘rule of law’ to ‘international relations’ specifically indicates a new concept in its global governance lexicon.
But what does it mean?
Xi’s use of the character hua (化) here is instructive: it signifies a change in state, meaning the Chinese government does not believe international relations are characterised by the rule of law, and this requires revision.
The reference to ‘double standards’ is also telling. The Chinese government frequently accuses other states of having ‘double standards’ when they criticise China’s human rights record and its occupation or militarisation of features in the South China Sea. Invoking the ‘rule of law in international relations’ could serve as a more sophisticated rebuke.
The timing of the introduction and dissemination of ‘rule of law in international relations’ coincides with China’s domestic push for ‘rule of law’. The Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in October 2014 passed a set of reforms to the judicial system and government, including provisions ensuring greater accountability of party members and officials and the centralisation of the court system, all under the auspices of ‘socialist rule of law‘. These reforms are explicitly Party-led: they emphasise that ‘the Party’s leadership is…the most fundamental guarantee for socialist rule of law in China’.
Following the 18th Party Congress, Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised Xi’s introduction of ‘rule of law in international relations’, writing in an opinion piece for state media that:
diplomacy is an extension of domestic politics; China, with its firm commitment to promote rule of law internally, is inevitably a firm protector and active builder of international rule of law.
This strongly suggests that the Chinese government’s understanding of the rule of law in its domestic context informs its international approach.