Shifting calculations behind China’s climate cooperation strategy
Over the past few weeks, we at Trivium China have noticed a not-so-subtle shift in China’s approach to climate dialogue with the US.
The BLUF: After months of pushing the climate issue as a key area for cooperation with the Biden administration, Chinese leaders are now looking to leverage potential climate cooperation as a means to reduce US pressure in other areas.
One, two, switcheroo: This change is turning a critical diplomatic dynamic on its head.
- During the Trump years, Chinese officials were desperately looking to compartmentalize diplomatic issues – so that security and human rights issues were pursued separately to things like the trade talks.
- Such compartmentalization had been the status quo for both sides prior to the Trump administration – and the lumping together of various issues confounded Chinese negotiators.
- In the early days of the Biden administration, it looked as though the status quo ante might come back to fruition – at least in this one dimension – as Chinese leaders talked up climate as a clear area for fruitful dialogue.
- But after months of heated rhetoric, acrimonious bi-lats, general lack of engagement by US officials, and continued US hectoring of China – the Chinese side seems to have had enough.
What’s new: Now, the Chinese are looking to tie climate talks to a wider easing of the US pressure campaign.
- That all become clear during US climate czar John Kerry’s recent trip to Tianjin.
And as we explain in this week’s Deep Dive, that leaves the Biden administration with two difficult choices:
- Soften up on China in the name of climate cooperation, or
- Ditch US-China climate talks, potentially putting the wider climate agenda at risk
You better believe we’ll be watching this one closely.
No more compartmentalization
For most of the past two decades, the US and China shared an uneasy consensus on the need to compartmentalize various elements of their contentious relationship.
- During the Bush and Obama eras, alongside the Hu Jintao and early Xi Jinping years, the two countries simultaneously drew red lines on specific issues while still productively negotiating on others.
- Hardline policies in one sphere did not necessarily bleed into others.
Like many things, this dynamic changed during the Trump administration.
- The Trump team’s approach, driven by Donald Trump’s own instincts, was to tie all the various US-China issues together, and use each as leverage vis-à-vis the others – with a particular focus on achieving the administration’s trade negotiation goals.
Some US analysts and pundits welcomed this new whole-of-relationship approach, while others expressed concern over tying sensitive security-related matters to economic policy negotiations.
Either way, senior Chinese officials were irritated at the shift.
- At the time, Beijing was vexed when the US referenced North Korea, Taiwan, or the South China Sea during conversations about tariffs, IP violations, or investment liberalization.
But fast forward to today, and the script has flipped.
- The Biden administration, although largely following the path laid out by the Trump team on China policy, wants to reinstitute some semblance of compartmentalization between issues.
Beijing isn’t having it.
Anything you can do, I can do better
Climate change is the crux of the issue.
- Although the US has been profoundly antagonistic towards China across nearly every other diplomatic topic this year, President Biden would almost certainly prefer a more collaborative and forward-looking approach when it comes to climate negotiations.
Unfortunately, DC’s relentlessly negative approach to China for the past several years seems to have pushed China into its own unreasonable intransigence.
That became clear when US climate czar John Kerry visited Tianjin in early September and conducted in-person and video discussions with a who’s who of China’s climate negotiators, including:
- Executive Vice Premier Han Zheng
- Beijing’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi
- Foreign Minister Wang Yi
- Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua
Kerry’s tone was generally critical and demanding.
- And China’s representatives gave back the same in turn.
- This was expected.
What was far more alarming was China’s diplomatic lockstep around the new concept that no climate-related progress would be possible if the US maintains its hostile positions on other, non-climate-related topics.
- Environmentally inclined observers around the world, including us, cringed at this new hard line from Beijing.
Ace in the hole
For his part, Kerry did the world no favors by treating his negotiations like US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi treated theirs in Alaska earlier this year.
- But China’s refusal to compartmentalize the problem of climate change was arguably the most unreasonable development out of the September talks.
Psychologically, it’s easy to understand that China is fed up with the US.
- Tactically, it’s also easy to understand how China sees climate change as its only ace-in-the-hole to muscle the US into friendlier relations.
- But still – yikes.
On the heels of 500-year floods in Zhengzhou and New York (and Germany and Belgium), this new approach was not what much of the world hoped to see from Beijing.
Putting up guardrails
Importantly, China’s hard line, exasperatingly provocative as it was, may have moved the needle.
- The Biden team seems to have been stirred by the rock-bottom nature of Kerry’s trip to Tianjin (along with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s similarly fruitless trip last month).
- Climate change was supposed to be the one area where the two sides could find common ground, but instead Kerry’s visit ended with alarm bells ringing.
Not long after Kerry’s return to DC, the US side requested a phone call between Biden and Xi – their first in seven months – and the two leaders spoke for 90 minutes late last week.
The head-of-state talks were reportedly still contentious, but the scuttlebutt in both capitals suggests the US side did indeed use the opportunity to try to put a floor under the deteriorating relationship.
- The Buzz in Beijing: China’s media is awash with claims that the US has finally realized it needs China.
- This Discourse in DC: In contrast, the rumors in Washington are that Biden’s foreign-policy hands were becoming concerned that the relationship had devolved so much that security issues could go off the rails too.
The upshot: We don’t know exactly what was discussed between the leaders, but the calculations on the US side are now a little clearer.
- The Biden team will need to abandon its “all-or-nothing” hardline approach to China if it wants any productive climate (or other) conversations with China.
- This would be a challenging shift for the administration to make because, until now, most folks in DC have been perfectly content with – and even welcoming of – exactly zero progress on any of the topics bedeviling the relationship.
For most of Biden’s term, the official stance has been not to even engage with the Chinese on most issues.
- For many US policymakers (in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill), anti-China policies are now an end unto themselves, and demonstrably in America’s interest to maintain.
- Many on the Biden team ascribe to this view, which has become de rigueur in the US capital across both major parties.
President Biden himself is passionate about addressing climate change, but it remains to be seen whether the US side will balk in the face of China’s new anti-compartmentalization posture.
- The US may try to call China’s bluff – continuing to offer climate talks up as a lone diplomatic carrot, while using sticks in virtually every other policy area.
- Or it may decide that relentless pressure on China in other categories is worth ditching the climate discussions.
But Beijing is not bluffing: Smart people in DC know that China will push forward with its own ambitious green agenda regardless of what the US says or does.
- Whether those actions take place in concert with US initiatives and priorities is the only open question.
Why it really matters: US-China collaboration on climate change is more important as a political signal and a demonstration of global leadership than a practical measure.
- In reality, both sides are likely to move forward (or fail to move forward) on emissions reductions based on domestic factors – not international negotiations.
Still, if the Biden team wants to prevent the US-China relationship from dropping into long-term stasis – and to increase the chances of pushing the world forward at COP 26 this November – they will need to find other, non-climate areas to ease up on China.
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