Climate change achieved top-tier status in U.S.-China relations during the Obama administration, but subsequently dropped from the bilateral agenda during the Trump-Xi era as relations spiraled downward more generally. Now, despite the sorry state of the relationship, climate could and should be elevated as one of the highest priorities in order to benefit both countries and avert climate chaos across the world.
Prior to the 2014 U.S.-China Joint Statement on Climate Change, no major agreement on climate change had ever been negotiated on a bilateral basis at the presidential level. The agreement appeared to prove that the U.S.-China relationship had matured because the two countries could disagree on some issues but agree to cooperate on others. Climate became the “bright spot” in otherwise contentious relationship. The climate agreement seemed consistent with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s theory of great power relations and also the American notion (most often attributed to former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick) that China should become a responsible global stakeholder. Crucially, it also paved the way for the 2015 global multilateral agreement in Paris, which greatly reduced free ridership to address a global commons problem.
Conditions have dramatically changed compared with five years ago, but the urgency of climate action remains undimmed. In the Indo-Pacific, China’s military strength has grown relative to the U.S. strength. Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s warning that the two countries could fall into a “Thucydides trap,” destined for war, now resonates more loudly than ever. China’s economic strength has also grown relative to U.S. strength, further feeding American fears because U.S. leaders believe they won the last Cold War due to their superior economy. Since 1885, the United States has never faced a competitor with a comparable GDP, but China’s GDP surpassed that of the United States in purchasing power parity terms in 2017. The U.S. perspective is that China does not play by the rules economically, but Trump has mostly focused on getting mad (hence the trade war), not getting even (by making investments in the U.S. economy). Protectionism is growing on both sides. In artificial intelligence and cyber security, China is no longer just an upstart but more likely a peer to the United States. On human rights, the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and rise of democracy protestors in Hong Kong have created new moral dilemmas for the United States. Finally, the earlier burgeoning U.S.-China cooperation on global public goods, such as the response to the Ebola crisis, has collapsed. President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blame China for the pandemic, and the administration has withdrawn from both the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Agreement.
Actions speak louder than words, and if United States and China are reducing emissions, other countries will, too.
We cannot recreate the conditions of the past, nor should we try to do so. A new U.S.-China bilateral agreement on climate change would not have the same impact as it did in 2014. It might not even be politically possible given the current level of contention. Still, there are concrete steps to take. First, the United States must rejoin the Paris Agreement because China never withdrew and is, in fact, on track to achieve its target — even though the United States is not. The two countries can work in parallel if not collaboratively to address domestic emissions while maintaining regular dialogue about their progress. As the two largest emitters, they are intrinsically important to the global effort. Actions speak louder than words, and if United States and China are reducing emissions, other countries will, too. America and China should also seek to announce new commensurate commitments in the context of the Paris Agreement ahead of the next round of international negotiations in November 2021.
Two more novel approaches should be considered. Greening development assistance is essential to avoiding future emissions from rapidly developing countries. China must green its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The United States, for its part, does not do enough to support developing countries in building clean infrastructure. The United States should either provide a compelling alternative to China’s BRI or partner with China to ensure that developing country economies can grow without a commensurate increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, the United States could consider negotiating competitive bilateral climate agreements, such as with India or Indonesia. The creation of green “competition” might induce China to likewise forge bilateral climate agreements with other countries, thus spurring a virtuous cycle of progressive action on climate around the world.