4 march 2021

The U.S. Doesn’t Have to Make Sacrifices to Get China’s Climate Cooperation. Beijing is sincere about fighting climate change—for its own best interests.

By Steven Stashwick Foreign Policy March 4, 2021,

Joe Biden entered the White House in January and immediately began mobilizing the U.S. government and global partners around two major policy poles, combating climate change and strategic competition with China. As the two most critical issues the United States arguably faces, they dominate the foreign-policy conversation, leading to tough questions about what happens when priorities seem to clash.

Despite strong records and statements from senior Biden officials on the challenge that China poses, some national security policy hands and pundits still worry that the Biden administration may sacrifice more traditional strategic concerns, such as Taiwan or the South China Sea, in an attempt to strike a climate bargain with Beijing. This betrays both a misperception of earlier climate breakthroughs and a mistaken belief that China’s own ambitious climate goals are disingenuous or principally fodder to gain other concessions.
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The U.S. Doesn’t Have to Make Sacrifices to Get China’s…
Beijing is sincere about fighting climate change—for its own best interests.

China made strong joint climate commitments with the United States in 2014 and again in the Paris climate agreement out of its own interest in curbing the costs of pollution and climate change. Since then, China has ramped up its renewable power sector, enhanced its enforcement of environmental mandates, and set even more ambitious climate goals for itself. Social and economic transformation on the scale that achieving those goals requires cannot be bought with concessions from the United States. Framing climate cooperation with China as zero-sum against a broader strategic competition also ignores that much of that cooperation should be setting the terms for productive competition on green technology, renewable supply chains, decarbonizing industry, and infrastructure financing—not just pushing for more aggressive targets.

Nevertheless, domestic critics focus on John Kerry’s high-profile role as Biden’s climate envoy to claim that he might undercut strong administration policies against China to secure its cooperation on climate change. The Wall Street Journal editorial board opined that “Chinese leaders will be only too happy to make future promises on climate in return for American acquiescence today to their security priorities.” An anonymous former Obama administration official complained that “China’s diplomacy is a constant search for leverage, and Kerry will deliver a load of it in a wheelbarrow right to their front door every day,” an idea with strong currency in more hawkish quarters.

Kerry addressed these attacks at a White House press conference in January to announce an array of new climate change initiatives, saying that the United States has serious differences with China on issues including intellectual property rights, market access, and the South China Sea, but he insisted that “those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. … And I know some people have been concerned. Nothing is going to be siphoned off into one area from another.”

This extraordinary response reflects a lingering belief that, as secretary of state, Kerry helped influence the Obama administration to appease China during bilateral climate negotiations in 2014 and the Paris Agreement talks in 2015. The narrative alleges that by holding back naval patrols to prevent upsetting diplomacy while China built up artificial islands and military bases in the Spratly Islands, the administration allowed China to assert effective control over the South China Sea.

But there is little evidence to suggest that this actually happened.

The National Security Council staff’s China director during the Obama administration denies that climate negotiators were allowed to trade off against other issues to gain China’s cooperation or that the administration ever tempered its response to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea as a result. In 2015, both Kerry and President Barack Obama criticized China’s island construction and regional strong-arm tactics leading up to a September summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House. In October, right after Xi declared that China had no intention of militarizing the Spratly Islands, the United States sent a warship to patrol through them. Defense Secretary Ash Carter then made a high-profile visit to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, just ahead of the final Paris climate negotiations in December.

China’s state media and foreign ministry condemned these moves, and the U.S. ambassador was summoned to receive official complaints, but it had no apparent effect on China’s participation in the Paris talks. Nor did additional patrols and condemnations by the Obama administration in 2016, or reportedly preventing China from building a new island base near the Philippines, affect China’s final ratification of the Paris Agreement later that year.

Still, underpinning the belief that China will only cooperate on climate if given concessions elsewhere is the idea that Beijing is not sincere about tackling climate change. (Some conspiracy theorists have even tried to paint climate change as a sinister Chinese plot intended to wring concessions from the United States.) More plausible, but still wrong, is the belief that China’s appetite for coal makes it a bad-faith climate actor. More than half of China’s power generation still comes from coal plants, and it produces so much power (and steel and concrete, which also rely on coal) that China accounts for half of global coal consumption. And despite its environmental rhetoric and expanding renewable energy capacity, China has more new coal plants under development or approved than the United States’ total remaining coal power capacity and still finances others abroad.

[To be continued

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