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The limits of Sino-American Climate Cooperation

By Minxin Pei
Minxin Pei

Despite their increasingly sharp rivalry, the United States and China are now sending the right signals regarding possible cooperation in the fight against climate change. The joint statement released after the mid-April meeting between US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, suggests that the two governments may seek to work together on climate policy to prevent their relationship from sliding into outright hostility. But the path forward is riddled with geopolitical obstacles.

Why the US and China are behaving responsibly at the moment is not difficult to understand: Both countries view climate change as an existential threat and have a strong interest in working together. Moreover, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping know that open intransigence or obstructionism on this issue does not go down well with international public opinion.

During the Cold War, the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism divided the world and cemented alliances. But in the coming decade, it is unlikely that the US and China can make friends through ideology alone. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t really have an ideology anymore, and America’s shine has been worn down by political polarization and Trumpism. Instead, because of climate change, humanity’s survival is at stake, and international alliances are shaped by attempts to solve this problem.

Action must follow

In the coming years, both countries will be judged on their ability to translate climate policy promises into action. Shortly after Biden’s recent leaders’ climate summit, for example, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that China’s cooperation with America depends on whether the US “interferes in China’s internal affairs.

Although China considers Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and especially Taiwan as “internal affairs,” Kerry has made it clear that the US will not compromise on these issues for climate policy cooperation. If neither China nor the US relents on this, Sino-US tensions over these sensitive issues can be expected to jeopardize bilateral climate policy efforts.

Besides the difficulty of separating their bilateral conflicts from potential areas of cooperation, it is unclear what kind of climate policy cooperation the US and China can actually achieve and how strong it will be. The two countries’ brief joint statement offers little detail on this, and for good reason. In the absence of trust, neither country is willing to make binding commitments.

Negotiate Climate Policy separately

Therefore, bilateral cooperation on climate policy will be choppy, modest, and incremental at best. It will be choppy because Sino-American relations, with their tensions, will inevitably affect climate efforts. Moreover, mutual suspicions and hostility will keep both sides from making big moves. Instead, tough negotiations are to be expected. The only way seems to be to test trust through minor measures and generate enough goodwill to maintain cooperation. So we should expect a gradual, protracted process.

Given the lack of mutual trust, the US and China can perhaps best cooperate by avoiding certain actions rather than actively trying to achieve things together. Here, the first step is to avoid linking climate cooperation to the most contentious aspects of the bilateral relationship, which include human rights, trade, and security.

Such restraint will be more demanding on China than on the US, since Chinese policymakers apparently believe the climate change issue could give them leverage against Biden’s policies in other areas. Xi must recognize that such linkages are counterproductive. Strong and bipartisan China-critical attitudes in the US leave little room for Biden to maneuver, and Chinese intransigence could seriously damage Xi’s credibility as a global leader against climate change.

Do not jeopardise Dialogue on green Technologies

If the US and China can resist the temptation to score points by attacking each other’s positions during the upcoming multilateral climate negotiations, this can also help them stay productively on task. On certain issues, such as emissions reduction targets and contributions to financing the energy transition in developing countries, both countries should base their criticisms on sound science, economics, and morality. More importantly, these criticisms should include alternatives that are judged by third parties to be reasonable, realistic, and beneficial.

As long as the two countries are engaged in a technology war, it may be unrealistic to talk about active US-China cooperation on clean energy. But although the two countries did not commit to anything in their recent joint statement, but merely expressed a willingness to talk about cooperation on green technologies, they could still try to keep such innovations out of their overall strategic competition. In particular, the United States and China should seek to minimize harm whenever they weigh measures that appear necessary to maintain a relative competitive advantage-but at the same time, those measures could negatively affect the development and diffusion of green technologies.

It is important for the world that the US and China cooperate against climate change, but we should have no illusions. Our best hope is that the two superpowers will be disciplined enough not to jeopardize humanity’s survival in their struggle for geopolitical advantage.

Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Translated by Harald Eckhoff.
Copyright: Project Syndicate,


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