Last month, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry traveled to China for climate change talks. The meeting concluded with a joint statement pledging that both sides would continue to work together to decarbonize their economies and adhere to commitments entered into under the Paris Agreement. While this could be viewed as a promising step, there is a danger that in its eagerness to achieve significant progress on climate change, Washington could fall into a trap set by Beijing.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly said that it believes it can challenge China on an economic and military front, while simultaneously collaborating over issues of common interest, namely climate change. This is hopelessly naive, given Beijing’s “checkered” track record of keeping its word and its ruthless pursuit of its own national interests.
During the administration of former US president Barack Obama — under which Kerry served as secretary of state — Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), at a news conference in the White House’s Rose Garden, solemnly pledged that Beijing would never militarize its possessions in the South China Sea.
Since then, Beijing has torn up its legal commitment to maintain Hong Kong’s semiautonomous system of government under the “one country, two systems” model, and continues to obstruct an independent investigation by the WHO into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite its initial promises of transparency and information sharing. So when Xi, as he did in September last year, announced that China would be carbon neutral by 2060, why should the Biden administration believe him?
On Feb. 3, Reuters reported that China last year brought 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power capacity online: more than three times the total amount built elsewhere in the world. China’s actions do not match its rhetoric.
Last month, British Secret Intelligence Service Chief Richard Moore said that the organization has begun “green spying” on big polluting countries to expose those that are not keeping to their climate change commitments. Moore did not mention China by name, but used the Cold War-era phrase of “trust, but verify,” coined by former US president Ronald Reagan to guide dealings with the USSR.
After having its hopes dashed that Biden would abandon his predecessor’s China policy, Xi urgently needs some leverage to force Washington to the negotiating table. With Biden putting climate change at the front and center of his policy agenda, carbon emissions are the big lever that Xi needs.
In an interview with Pro Publica last year, Kerry said: “China is about to bring 21 gigawatts of coal-fired power online. India is poised to do slightly less, but similarly huge amounts. That’s going to kill us. That’s going to kill the efforts to deal with climate.”
At an Earth Day summit last month, Biden called the 2020s the “decisive decade” to avert a climate crisis.
If climate change is an existential threat to humanity, then it is logical that everything else should be up for negotiation to achieve drastic reductions in global carbon emissions. Theoretically, this could include the lifting of US trade sanctions against China and restrictions on Chinese tech companies — even a relaxation of US defense commitments to Taiwan — were Beijing to appear to have committed to “game-changing” carbon reductions.
Perhaps, like so many politicians and business leaders that have come before them, Biden and Kerry have concluded that, on balance, they cannot afford not to “engage” with China, since the potential benefits far outweigh the “manageable” risks.
However, as so often is the case, such an analysis skews wildly in favor of the elusive gains without a proper understanding of the risks involved. If it is not careful, Washington could end up trading away its negotiating position and being left with nothing to show for it.
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