Using climate change as a weapon will backfire on China
A central dilemma of US foreign policy today is this: the country that most threatens the US-led world order is also the country whose cooperation is essential to preserve a livable world. That dilemma erupted again last week, when China responded to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan by ending bilateral talks on climate change and other issues.
In doing so, Chinese President Xi Jinping is testing US President Joe Biden’s theory that Washington can cooperate with Beijing in some areas while competing with it in others. But Xi’s power politics comes with its own risks: He could also be courting a bigger global backlash than he realizes.
From its earliest days, the Biden team has argued that competition and cooperation are not incompatible. Beijing is “the only contender” capable of mounting “a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system,” Biden’s draft national security strategy said; America must strengthen its alliances, invest in its underlying strengths, and prevent China from imposing its will on the world.
Yet, according to the administration, Washington must also strive to build a productive relationship on issues where the interests of both countries align. “We cannot let the disagreements that divide us keep us from moving forward on priorities that require us to work together,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in May.
This bifurcated policy aims to emulate one of the most promising legacies of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union collaborated on global health issues and arms control even as they scrambled to influence almost everywhere.
It is particularly relevant to climate change, given that China and America are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, and there is little chance of significantly slowing global warming. unless Beijing – which accounts for more than a quarter of global emissions – goes green. much more aggressively than it currently plans. Blinken put it bluntly: “There is simply no way to solve climate change without China’s leadership.
Yet compartmentalizing US-China relations has not been easy. Climate change cannot be an “oasis” of cooperation amid “deserts” of competition, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained in 2021: America must create the right atmosphere for environmental diplomacy by relaxing its policies on Taiwan, Hong Kong and other issues. Indeed, China has linked climate change to a host of geopolitical issues, demanding gains on the latter as the price of progress on the former.
The Biden team rightly refused to make these concessions. Her hope is that China’s self-interest will bring her back to climate cooperation once she realizes the United States just won’t play the game of ties. Yet this theory seems more fragile after Pelosi’s visit, which led to Beijing closing several military and diplomatic channels in addition to suspending bilateral climate dialogue.
Xi’s move reminds us that Beijing frowns on military ties to diplomatic crisis-management mechanisms, in part because it believes the US will be less likely to act boldly in the Pacific. Westerners if they fear that the resulting tensions cannot be safely managed. It also threatens to heighten trade-offs between two of Biden’s foreign policy priorities.
Xi is surely trying to escalate tensions within the US government and the Democratic Party, pitting climate hawks against Chinese hawks and hoping the former group wins. Yet this maneuver may not work quite as intended.
John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, offered this response to China’s climate decision: “Suspending cooperation doesn’t punish the United States — it punishes the world, especially the developing world.” This is a risky strategy for China to follow.
A “shoot the hostage” approach to climate change could damage China’s image in the poorer countries it is geopolitically courting. Extreme temperatures are already harming their economic growth, fueling migration crises and contributing to social, political and even military instability.
A reputation for climate cynicism certainly won’t boost Beijing’s prestige in Europe, where global warming is seen as a near-existential threat in many countries, and China is already paying the price for its wolf-warrior diplomacy and support. to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. .
There is also an even greater, perhaps more distant danger. If Xi convinces the world that offers of cooperation won’t persuade Beijing to take climate change seriously, he could unwittingly give impetus to a more coercive approach, in which advanced democracies increasingly use carbon and electricity tariffs. other penalties for non-compliance.
It wouldn’t be the first time Xi has scored a diplomatic goal against his side. One of the defining characteristics of his foreign policy has been his remarkable ability to convince countries on several continents that China’s power must be checked. Amid the current crisis, Beijing’s military intimidation has not bent Taiwan, but it has alarmed Japan and other Western Pacific nations.
In the short term, Beijing’s climate coercion may succeed in unbalancing the Biden administration. In the longer term, this could prove more damaging for China itself.