There is a scene in one of my favorite movies where the hero, surrounded by an angry mob, wraps one of his arms around his own neck, puts his gun to his own head with the other and warns that he’ll shoot if anyone gets closer. The crowd freezes and, worried that he’s serious, backs off.
That scene came to mind last week amidst reports that Chinese officials had warned visiting U.S. climate envoy John Kerry that cooperation on climate change depended on Washington’s attitude on other issues. China has reason to be troubled by U.S. positions on a variety of concerns, but blocking cooperation with Washington on climate change makes no sense. It’s in Beijing’s own interest to work with the United States on climate. China is already profoundly affected by climate change and the impacts will only get worse.
Signals were mixed before Kerry’s visit to China. When he took the job in January, he said that climate should be a “stand alone” issue, insulated from other controversies in the bilateral relationship. For a while, it looked like that might happen. During an April visit to China ahead of a climate summit that U.S. President Joe Biden would host, a joint statement with his Chinese counterpart promised cooperation to fight climate change “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.” Chinese leader Xi Jinping seemed to back that position when he told European leaders that month that “climate change should not become a geopolitical bargaining chip.”
Kerry has reportedly had more than a dozen talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and for all the displeasure, he still got access to the right people during his last visit. That is a striking contrast with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, whose August trip to China was uncertain until the last minute because of questions about who she would meet.
China has made it clear that it takes climate change seriously and wants to be seen globally as a leader. The country sought to fill the gap when then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement. Xi promised the U.N. General Assembly last year that China would achieve net zero emissions by 2060, repeated that pledge during Biden’s climate summit and added that his country would hit peak coal-based greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the 2030 target it had set previously.
There was always a counter current, however. A foreign ministry spokesperson warned in January that “China-U.S. cooperation in specific areas is … bound to be closely related to the overall China-U.S. relations.” In meetings last month, Sherman was told that Chinese cooperation is conditional, with one Chinese official saying that “It’s not going to work if the U.S. asks for cooperation on the one hand and damages China’s interests on the other,” alluding to differences over Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Xinjiang and the ongoing tech war between the two countries, among others.
Yang Jiechi, one of China’s most senior foreign policy officials, told Kerry that China was ready to work with the United States on climate, “to strengthen climate change policy exchanges and practical cooperation with the U.S.” to implement the Paris Agreement, but he added that “cooperation must be two-way and mutually beneficial.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi was a bit more colorful and considerably more blunt. Calling on the U.S. to stop treating China as “a threat and an adversary,” he warned that climate change “cannot be separated” from geopolitics. Washington hopes “climate change cooperation can be an oasis in China-U.S. relations. But if the oasis is surrounded by desert, sooner or later the oasis will also become desert.”
The hard line could be a shrewd and calculated play by foreign policy wizards in Beijing. This analysis reasons that Beijing is using Kerry, a former secretary of state who has an independent streak, a mandate and an ego, to carry its water in Washington. A second possibility is that Chinese strategists believe that in the aftermath of Afghanistan, the Biden administration is looking for a win and a deal with China on climate could do the trick.
The idea of the two countries striking a deal on climate could also be used to nurture the fear of a G2 condominium in which the U.S. makes deals over the heads of its Asian allies. That is implicit in the transactional approach to geopolitics that China is demanding: silencing U.S. complaints about Chinese behavior in exchange for a climate deal. It also aligns with messaging from China after the withdrawal from Afghanistan that the U.S. is unreliable.
I’m disinclined to credit Beijing with playing four-dimensional chess. If it is trying to use Kerry, then it has miscalculated both his position in the administration and the U.S. mood. A climate deal isn’t going to undermine a larger national consensus about how to deal with China.
While the terms of cooperation should be negotiated — it’s fair to insist that the U.S. not dictate any deal (although there is no indication that is happening) — an “all or nothing” approach makes China look petulant and self absorbed, especially when China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China now produces roughly 27% of global emissions, more than double that of the United States, and more than those of all developed countries combined. Refusing to work with the U.S. on climate issues — after multiple pledges to lead global efforts on this problem — would also do great damage to Chinese soft power and image.
But the most compelling reason for China to take climate change seriously is the impact it’s having on the country itself. An analysis by the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) concluded that the country is a “sensitive” and “significantly affected” area of global climate change. According to its report, China’s surface temperature warmed at a rate of 0.26 C per decade between 1951 and 2020, “obviously higher” than the global average of 0.15 C per decade. Climate change was also creating “rising” extreme weather events, such as heavy rains and droughts.
A 2020 report from China’s National Climate Center concurs, noting that the country’s average temperature and sea levels have risen faster than the global average. This threatens 43 million people who live near Chinese coasts and whose homes will be underwater by 2100 if global average temperature rises by 2 C. A new study by researchers at the University of Reading found that temperatures in China may increase dramatically and sooner than anticipated as a result of global greenhouse gas emissions. Their forecasts show temperature highs and lows will rise around 2 C for days and nights in summer and winter by 2050.
I encountered the same blinkered and short-term calculations in a meeting about North Korea nearly a decade ago. Chinese policy toward Pyongyang, while intended to advance Beijing’s interests, was enabling and empowering North Korea, alienating South Koreans, strengthening the U.S. role in Northeast Asia and its alliances, and making China look bad — all to the country’s detriment. In that instance too, the tenacious pursuit of narrowly defined national interests undercut China.
As Kerry insisted, “climate is not ideological, not partisan and not a geostrategic weapon. It’s a matter of mathematics and physics.” Beijing should be working with the U.S. to forge the high-profile partnership the world needs to tackle climate change. My guess is that the stakes are sufficiently high to nudge China in that direction. After all, the Chinese are holding their own citizens hostage as well.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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