21 december 2009

China hails deal despite being cast villain

By Geoff Dyer in Beijing, Financial Times December 21 2009

As the recriminations continued to fly on Monday about the Copenhagen climate change talks, Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, said the agreement should be “treasured”, in the latest indication that Beijing is quietly pleased with the negotiations’ outcome.

China has been seen in many quarters as one of the few winners from the Copenhagen accord after it both avoided any new commitments which might put a brake on its future development and reinforced its position as a powerful diplomatic force.

Yet as the Chinese delegation returned to Beijing on Monday, officials were already fighting a rearguard action to avoid some potentially dangerous fallout from the talks which could call into question some of China’s perceived gains. Writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Monday, Ed Miliband, the UK climate change and energy secretary, blamed China for blocking agreement on emissions targets.

As well as fending off criticism that China blocked a stronger deal, Beijing was also trying to repair its damaged alliance in the climate change process with other developing countries.

China went into the talks with two broad goals – to avert being drawn into making tough new promises about its future emissions such as setting an early date for when its emissions might peak and avoiding rigorous outside inspections of its policies; and to make sure that Beijing was not cast as the villain in the climate change debate.

Mr Wen’s confident tone on Monday suggests Beijing believes it got its way on avoiding new commitments. “It was a result that came from hard work on all sides, was accepted by all, didn’t come easy and should be treasured,” Mr Wen said of the accord.

A senior foreign ministry official underlined on Monday that China would continue to defend its economic development in future talks. “The diplomatic and political wrangling over climate change that is opening up will be focused on the right to develop and space to develop,” Yi Xianliang was quoted in the official People’s Daily.

In a year when the G8 has been replaced by the G20, and Barack Obama, US president, has openly tried to engage Beijing’s help in solving international problems, China’s central role in every stage of the Copenhagen process has underlined its rapidly rising international prestige.

However, while Beijing successfully defended its development priorities in the talks, China did not meet its second goal of avoiding a lot of the blame for any post-Copenhagen disappointment.

Although some of the comments after Copenhagen reflected the normal diplomatic blame game, it was clear that several developed-country governments were extremely angered by the positions that Beijing took, including the calculated snub by Mr Wen of sending a senior official in his place to meet Mr Obama at one stage, or China’s rejection of the target of 80 per cent emission reductions by 2050 for developed countries, which some European governments believed had already been agreed upon.

Given the discussion in the US and Europe about imposing carbon tariffs on exports from countries viewed as not doing enough on climate change, this is potentially dangerous territory for China.

Beijing was also scrambling on Monday to reassure other developing countries that it had not abandoned them in the five-nation talks that sealed the Copenhagen accord.

Qin Gang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said that any suggestions China had ignored the rest of the G77 group of developing nations “were untrue and irresponsible comments made out of ulterior motives”.

He added: “China’s position and propositions were widely supported and appreciated by other developing countries.”

Yet there were plenty of signs that the alliance between the large emerging economies such as China and the rest of the developing world is quickly weakening.

Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, openly questioned the future of the G77 group. “It is very difficult to maintain a political grouping that was formed with a whole lot of ideology that has become obsolete,” he said. “There are many big developing countries that do not need an agreement. They would rather go with business as usual.”

Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said that the deal agreed at Copenhagen had created a new political dividing line in climate change discussions, which was less to do with rich and poor countries and more to do with a country’s overall amount of emissions.

“This union of the US with these four countries is premised on what could become a new guiding assumption – that the world is divided between the major emitters of carbon pollution and everyone else,” he said. If that happens, Beijing will find it harder to resist future pressure by arguing that it is still a developing nation.

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