Prospects of China-U.S. Climate Diplomacy: The Perspective From Beijing
Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 8
As U.S.-China tensions have continued into the Presidency of Joseph R. Biden, climate change is seen by some to be a rare area for bilateral collaboration (21st Century, December 22, 2020; The Paper, January 20). However, despite the U.S.’ official return to climate diplomacy with its rejoining of the Paris Agreement on February 19, sustained bilateral tensions over issues including disagreements over the origin of the coronavirus, trade frictions, an ongoing military standoff in the South China Sea and human rights-related disputes in Hong Kong and Xinjiang make the prospects of bilateral climate cooperation uncertain.
To fend off rising domestic concern that climate diplomacy with China would be transaction-oriented and detrimental to other foreign policy goals, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has said unequivocally that climate would be a “critical, standalone issue” that will never lead to a weaker China policy (VOX, January 27). His remarks immediately sparked a negative response from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚), who stressed that “China-U.S. cooperation in specific areas, unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill, is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole” (MOFA, January 28).
After President Biden invited Chinese President Xi Jinping (习近平) to attend the Leaders Climate Summit on April 22 and 23 (White House, March 26), Beijing did not confirm Xi’s attendance until after Kerry had accepted an invitation from the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) to meet his counterpart Xie Zhenhua (解振华) in Shanghai (MEE, April 14). During the trip, Kerry also met with Chinese Vice Premier and Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng (韩正) via video link. Following Kerry’s trip, a Joint Statement was issued, with both countries agreeing to cooperate with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis (MEE, April 18).
Beijing’s Perspective on U.S.-China Relations
To better understand the prospects of China-U.S. climate diplomacy, it is necessary to first examine bilateral relations. From the start of official diplomatic relations in 1979 until September 11, 2001, China-U.S. relations could in retrospect be defined as a “win-win” state of mutual collaboration and benefit. With the economic ascendance of the so-called G-2 (China and America), the two countries together increased their aggregate share of total global GDP by 6 percentage points and global carbon emissions by 3 percentage points during this time. China remained a junior partner in the bilateral relationship: its GDP was only 12 percent of America’s and its carbon emissions were about half that of the U.S.’ by the end of this period.
After China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001, although the G-2’s importance kept growing, China’s rapid ascendancy was thereafter partially achieved at the relative expense of America. While China’s share in the global economy rose from a mere 3.6 percent in 2001 to 17.2 percent in 2020, the author calculates that approximately 45 percent of Chinese gains were made at America’s expense. And as U.S. carbon emissions began to shrink, rising emissions from China more than made up the difference (see image above).
Contrasting Perspectives From the U.S. and China
Following a gradual downturn in bilateral relations, with Washington’s initiation of a bitter trade war in 2018, experts on both sides have turned to different frameworks to explain the decline in relations. On the U.S. side, influential analysts have frequently touted the “Thucydides Trap” as an explanation for the structural stress that arises when a rising power challenges a ruling one (The Atlantic, September 24, 2015).
In contrast, some Chinese analysts framed the new era of U.S.-China relations as a by-product of Beijing’s abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s long-standing 1990 dictum to “hide your strengths and bide your time” (韬光养晦, taoguangyanghui) (Xinhua, August 15, 2015; 163.com, February 13). During the author’s private conversations with Chinese elites, the so called “Zhou Yu-Zhuge Liang complex” (瑜亮情结, yu liang qingjie) was also frequently mentioned to explain the perceived inevitability of U.S. containment of China. In the classic Chinese story, a jealous Zhou Yu (周瑜) relentlessly attempts to outwit the smart Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮), who is nevertheless innocent.
There is a strong conviction among many Chinese elites that the Japanese economy’s recent stagnation could at least be partially explained by the U.S. containment of Japan, best exemplified by the U.S.-initiated Plaza Accord in 1985 (Global Times, March 28, 2018; People’s Network, June 10, 2019). If Washington could not even tolerate the economic ascendance of its ally Japan in 1980s, Chinese analysts reason, then China’s avoidance of a similar fate cannot depend on its ability to make concessions to the U.S. (People’s Daily, August 10, 2018).
Given China’s deep suspicion of Washington’s intentions, why then did Beijing still push for a Xie-Kerry meeting and express its support for Biden’s upcoming climate summit?
Chinese Thinking on Climate Diplomacy with the U.S.
China considers itself to be one of the most vulnerable countries to the adverse impacts of climate change (China Third National Communication on Climate Change, accessed on April 18 ). Consequently, its climate stance has become increasingly progressive over time. In 2015, China helped the Obama administration conclude the Paris Agreement, with the added benefit of less contentious bilateral relations.
Last September, Beijing sensed little appetite in either Washington or Brussels for a similar style of climate cooperation, so China unilaterally announced a goal to peak its national carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, sending shock waves through the climate policy world (CGTN, September 23, 2020).
As a major world power that is not yet a fully advanced economy, China could be categorized as the first ever “hybrid superpower” in the modern era (Center on Global Energy Policy, July 3, 2020). Beijing’s two-phase climate pledge demonstrates how China views its own hybrid status. In the first phase leading up to 2030, China’s carbon neutralization goals are less ambitious due to the country’s chronic developing country mentality. But after 2030, China’s leaders expect their country to have already become a high-income country. This rising “superpower” mentality is behind China’s timeframe of achieving carbon neutrality just 10 years later than the American pledge to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.
China’s climate pledge is thus a proactive defensive move aimed at eliminating potential pressures that might otherwise be generated from a strengthened transatlantic alliance against China in the climate arena. It is ambitious enough in the long-run, aiming to eliminate some 10 billion tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions—or close to one third of the global total—within just three decades from 2030 onward. At the same time, it still leaves sufficient room for incremental collaboration (Project Syndicate, November 26, 2020).
In the “Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis,” China and the U.S. both committed to “tak[e] enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s,” “support the transition from carbon-intensive fossil fuel based energy to green, low-carbon and renewable energy in developing countries,” and “address emissions of methane and other non-CO2 greenhouse gases” (MEE, April 18)—all examples of the embedded flexibility in Xi’s climate pledge that had been intentionally left out last September.
China’s 14th Five Year Plan (FYP) and Long-Term Targets for 2035, released in March, set an 18 percent reduction target for “CO2 intensity” and a 13.5 reduction target for “energy intensity.” In total, four out of eight “binding” targets in the 14th FYP were related to energy consumption and climate change, demonstrating the state’s prioritization of climate policy.
Given the magnitude of the climate crisis and its own outsized role in mitigating climate change, Beijing believes that “the Biden administration’s green recovery centered climate plan will not go far without Chinese cooperation.” On the other hand, Beijing’s own climate goals “will also be difficult to attain if it cannot secure U.S. technological cooperation in clean transportation, hydrogen fuel, and energy storage” (SIIS, April 14). But because of Washington’s track record of reversing on both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, Beijing does not consider the U.S.’ climate pledge to be a particularly reliable national commitment (MOFA, April 17). Unless China-U.S. climate collaboration “could serve as an icebreaker for the current frosty bilateral relationship (SIIS, April 14), there is little incentive for Beijing to support the Biden administration’s self-proclaimed “international leadership of the United States on climate issues” (White House, January 20).
One Red Heart Preparing Two Outcomes (一颗红心，两手准备, yi ke hongxin, liang shou zhunbei)
U.S.-China climate diplomacy currently faces more threats than opportunities, and China hawks in Washington may try to weaponize international climate policy as part of broader efforts to contain China. To guard against this, and as a means of preempting a potential transatlantic climate alliance against China, Beijing has signaled that it has alternative partners to move its climate agenda forward. The most substantial clause in the China-U.S. Joint Statement, regarding the phasedown of hydrofluorocarbon production and consumption under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, was thus first announced at a video summit that took place between Xi, the French President Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Xinhua, April 16).
To hedge against the worst-case scenario that toxic China-U.S. relations will prevent any meaningful bilateral cooperation, Beijing has drastically upgraded the political priority of “security”—including energy security—in the 14th FYP. Consequently, rising anxiety over energy security has translated into a blessing for both renewables and for domestically abundant but carbon-intensive coal, as evidenced by Beijing’s plan to build coal-to-oil and coal-to-gas strategic bases despite the coal industry’s sizable climate and water footprint (Xinhua, March 13). To make the situation more murky, while China accounts for 52 percent of the world’s coal-fired power capacity (Kevin Tu via WeChat, March 22), the future of coal in the 14th FYP remains ambiguous.
Chinese analysts have largely agreed with the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s claim that China-U.S. relations will never return to what they once were (RFI, November 14, 2018; China Brief, December 10, 2020). But Beijing still opted for issuing a Joint Statement ahead of the U.S.’ Leaders Climate Summit and hopes that climate collaboration may serve as a bumper to prevent the free fall of bilateral relations. Given the looming danger of the climate crisis and the necessity of engaging China in climate neutral solutions, Washington should resist the worst instincts among its China hawks to wage an all-out war to contain Beijing.
As the Chinese saying goes, “one hand clapping makes no sound” (一个巴掌拍不响, yige bazhang pai bu xiang). In other words, blaming Washington is unlikely to reset China-U.S. relations in a mutually acceptable direction. If Beijing could instead seriously re-examine its disruptive foreign policy and ideological gestures since 2013 through the lens of other countries, especially America, it would benefit China’s understanding of how to alleviate rising anxiety over its rapid political, ideological and economic ascendance in certain parts of the world. Amid worsening attitudes towards China worldwide (Pew Research, October 6, 2020; NYU Shanghai, March 6), the issue of climate change also represents a rare opportunity for “win-win” collaboration.
Finally, it is in the interests of the rest of the world—especially the European Union—to urge the two largest carbon emitting nations to cooperate instead of undermining each other on climate issues. Otherwise, the planet cannot hope to meet the Paris Agreement goals.
Kevin Jianjun Tu is a Beijing-based energy and climate advisor. The opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent the views of any organization that he is affiliated with.
 Between 2001 and 2020, China’s share of global GDP increased from 3.6 percent to 17.2 percent, or 13.6 percentage points. Based on the author’s calculations, 6.1 of these percentage points were due to a relative decline in U.S. GDP. Hence, 45 percent (6.1%/13.6%=45%) of Chinese gains were made at the U.S.’ expense.
 See also: Wang Yungui (王允贵) “Lessons Learned from the Influence of the ‘Plaza Agreement’ on Japan’s Economy [‘广场协议’ 对日本经济的影响及启示],” International Economic Review (国际经济评论), Issue 1, 2004, https://www.cqvip.com/QK/90440X/200401/9080164.html; Wang Fan (王凡) and Li Xianjun (李向军), “Strategic Thinking on Renminbi Appreciation Under the Background of US Dollar Hegemony—Reflections on German and Japanese Responses to the ‘Plaza Agreement’ [美元霸权背景下人民币升值的战略思考—日德应对 ‘广场协议’ 之镜检],” Financial and Trade Economy (财贸经济), Issue 4, 2012, https://www.cqvip.com/QK/96197X/201204/41446956.html.
 These four targets are: 1) Reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP (%); 2) Reduce CO2 emissions per unit of GDP (%); 3) Forest coverage rate (%); and 4) Comprehensive energy production capacity (Xinhua, March 13). For more discussion of the 14th FYP’s implications for China’s climate change goals, see: “Q&A: What does China’s 14th ‘five year plan’ mean for climate change?” Carbon Brief, March 12, 2021, https://www.carbonbrief.org/qa-what-does-chinas-14th-five-year-plan-mean-for-climate-change.