Australian and PRC government conceptions of the international order: Article for the Australian Journal of International Affairs 

My article for the Australian Journal of International Affairs, ‘Australian and PRC government conceptions of the international order’ is available online here.


Through qualitative comparative analysis of policy documents and official statements over the last 10 years (2008–2018), this paper examines Australian and PRC government conceptions of the international order and the associated policy implications. Their understandings of the international order are informed by their self-defined national role conceptions and perceptions of other states, and are manifested in discussions of institutional reform, international law and human rights. Australia’s self-conception as a middle power informs its emphasis on maintenance and US leadership of the existing order, while the PRC’s self-conceptions as both a developing and established power enable it to frame itself as either an upholder or reformer of the order. Both governments highlight the ‘rules-based’ mechanisms of the WTO, and are more likely to agree on trade and economic issues than on other matters. Their responses to the 2016 South China Sea arbitration tribunal decision and discussions of the role of human rights in the international order suggest less agreement is likely on international law and human rights norms. While Australia considers the PRC a potential challenger to the existing order, Australia does not feature in PRC discussions of international order, suggesting its limited ability to affect PRC foreign policy decisions.


China’s ‘rule of law in international relations’

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.

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