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Climate offers salve for US-China tension

Climate change cooperation can help ease the sharpening conflict between China and the US, says Renmin University’s Shi Yinhong ahead of the APEC summit in Beijing

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Climate change has taken on new political significance for the relationship between the world's two biggest emitters (Image by U.S. Embassy The Hague/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Ahead of Xi Jinping and Barack Obama’s meeting at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University, shares his views on the Sino-US climate relationship.

chinadialogue (CD): In your view, when did China and the US really start to interact on climate change?

Shi Yinhong (SY): It was during the latter part of the George W. Bush administration. Strategic relations between the two countries were better back then than they are today: China had fewer regional issues and the US wasn't so involved. But at the time, there were quite a lot of trade disputes, and Bush sent his energy secretary to push China on climate change. Bush's administration wasn't actually so keen about doing anything on climate change at home, however.

CD: How did US-China climate change cooperation change when Obama came to power?

SY: The US government became more active in its approach to climate change. Obama had a clearer view of the significance for America and saw it as a way to expand American influence and to compete with the EU for sway over public opinion and the ability to guide the debate.  

In 2009, Obama’s first year in power, there were some moves to improve relations with China, and in comparison with the Bush years there was less pressure on China to act on climate change. But at the Copenhagen climate summit, after Obama’s visit to China, he expressed great dissatisfaction with China. In combination with other factors, the Copenhagen summit was a turning point.

Today China is the world’s largest CO2 emitter. And the country is changing the way it grows, with both the government and people taking environmental management more seriously. So while China maintains the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (the idea that rich countries should bear a greater share of the costs of tackling climate change than poor countries) it has taken very positive measures, both at home and on the international stage. These have bolstered its response to climate change.

In 2012 we started to see good progress in the cooperation between China and the US on climate change. However, over the past four years, strategic conflicts between the two countries have become more pronounced, from military developments to online hacking, meaning that working together on climate change has become more important to the political relationship. As conflicts sharpen, cooperation on the economy, finance and climate change has become a way of preventing a further deterioration in relations.

With the APEC summit about to open, there is no realistic hope of significant or substantial progress on the disagreements over military development, online hacking, the South China Sea or international waters. The most that the two governments can hope for is that things do not get worse, and that the air of fierce disagreement over the Hong Kong issue can be eased. But while there is antagonism over strategic issues, a crucial compensatory role can be played by cooperation on finance, some international security issues, and also on dealing with climate change.  

I expect the talks between Xi and Obama to produce drafts and initial implementation of agreements on climate change and bilateral investment. I think the two leaders have similar wishes.

CD: How effective has Obama been at pushing forward the climate change agenda? What about the Chinese government?

SY: Since Obama took power there has been a significant increase in US government interest. But Obama is a weak president, and so he himself and his administration cannot make any major moves. Domestically, he is impeded. Congress, like some special interests in China, is too concerned about the economy when discussing climate change and too conservative. The administration doesn’t have the political strength to push forward on climate change.

This situation in China is different. Although China does have various special interests, and some provinces are not taking the need to change the mode of development seriously enough, the government and the leadership are determined to deal with China’s worsening environment and have a very clear awareness that China, as a hugely influential nation, should contribute to global problem-solving. So things in China are better.

Of course, China still sticks to the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle, and is still a developing nation. Any commitments it makes are voluntary. China will make its own decisions about what will actually be done. But in comparison with the past, China is talking more with other nations before making those decisions.

CD: What tensions are there between the US and China over climate change?

SY: The US of course wants to put pressure on China to commit to more emissions reductions. But things are much better than they were.

Response to climate change is a complex political matter, as well as an issue of science, technology and knowledge. But in emissions reduction, clean and efficient use of coal, nuclear power, wind power and the green economy, the US has better technology and knowledge. And in recent years many of those technologies have been imported to China. At the same time, China’s own green industry is growing, and has started to develop its own advanced technologies and experience. And as China invests more in the US, China will be able to do more for the US response to climate change, and for global efforts.

CD: Do you see the US stance on climate change shifting once Obama leaves office?

SY: If we see another Democrat president, I don’t think there will be fundamental changes. If it’s a Republican, there may be more concern for domestic economic issues, but as the world’s second largest carbon emitter the US will still contribute to the global handling of climate change. So even if the Republicans win I don’t think there will be a huge shift.

CD: Where does climate change rank today on the global political agenda?

SY: Highly, I think. Climate change is a real issue. Globally there is awareness that we need a quick response and early emissions reductions. That will help environmental and economic development for all nations, and help avoid the risk of more climate disasters. So in comparison with the time of the Kyoto Protocol, or with the last few years, the status of climate change in global politics is on the increase.

Disagreement on some issues between developed and developing nations have also eased somewhat. So there’s more cooperation and discussion now, and less disagreement and conflict. Overall the international community is making progress on these issues.

CD: What role does the EU play today?

SY: The EU has played a huge part in this. To an extent it was the EU and some global, particularly Western NGOs that made this such an important issue on the global political agenda. That’s been hugely influential. Objectively speaking, the EU has played a role in making China and the US take the matter seriously.

Of course, responding to climate change affects society and the economy. It’s a very complex issue. China and the US have a shared interest, in that they don’t want the EU to push them too hard. Overall there’s not too much conflict between them on this issue. And the EU is also gathering experience, and putting significantly less pressure on both China and the US than it was a few years ago. Overall, cooperation between the three parties on climate change is better than it was three to five years ago, you could even say much better.

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