By Tilak Doshi,
A Biden presidency, which now seems most likely, will have plenty on its foreign policy plate, ranging from relations with Russia, China and Europe to the Iran question in the Middle East. But it is likely that global climate change policy, especially in relation to China’s position in it, will be among the most contentious challenges it will face in international diplomacy.
If we are slated for a Biden presidency, we will get the most climate change-conscious administrations in US history. The climate agenda has been elevated to a “whole of government” approach, straddling the key portfolios of national security, foreign policy, and economy and finance. From January 20th 2021, “fighting global warming” will be elevated to a primary concern of the vast US government bureaucracies ranging from the EPA and the Federal Reserve to the Pentagon and the State Department. A Biden administration would “use every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions alongside with the US” and it would “pursue strong measures” to stop other countries from cheating on their climate commitments.
The “Grand Bargain” of Paris
No doubt a future Biden presidency would seek to emulate the lauded bargain between Obama and China’s President Xi that set the foundations of the non-binding Paris Agreement. The 2015 agreement was hailed as ex-President Obama’s “breakthrough” understanding with China that the latter too would join in the global effort to cut emissions. In a move welcomed by European leaders, Biden has vowed that the US would re-join the Paris climate accord on his first day in the White House in January. It will seek to reverse President Trump’s formal withdrawal notice from the Paris Agreement issued in November 2019.
To steer this vision — an example of an enlightened , “lead from behind” multilateral approach in concert with Europe — Biden has appointed the aristocratic Europhile John Kerry to a Cabinet-level role as “climate tsar”. Kerry oversaw the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement and signed the accord on the behalf of the US in 2016 as ex-President Obama’s Secretary of State (2013 – 2017). As “special presidential envoy for climate”, Kerry does not require Senate confirmation. He has vowed that under his watch “America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is”.
To the proponents of “climate crisis”, a Biden-Xi collaboration is an opportunity to set the terms for meaningful global cooperation on climate change policies. For the more hard headed diplomats — not least China’s ‘wolf warriors’ – more at home reading Machiavelli’s The Prince than Obama’s latest bestseller A Promised Land, the hopes of a US-China ‘grand bargain’ will seem naïve.
The celebrated Paris Agreement was only so much of smoke and mirrors as far as China’s practitioners of strategic statecraft were concerned. For Obama’s end of the bargain, his administration unleashed such punitive measures on US’s own economic interests as the Clean Power Plan and the Waters Of The US Act by Executive Orders (since the Paris Agreement was conveniently not a “treaty” requiring an impossible Senate approval). At Xi’s end, China promised to peak its emissions by 2030 at a level and a rate of subsequent decline that were not specified.
Nor were Chinese planners unaware that research showed that China’s commitment to peak by 2030 was actually less ambitious than continuing business as usual, that the country’s emissions would have peaked by then anyway whatever it did (or not). Meanwhile, signing the agreement did not stop China from approving 23 gigawatts of new coal-power projects the first half of 2020, more than the previous two years combined. Note that China had commissioned more coal power capacity than the rest of the world combined in those two years.
The Developing Country Position
From the earliest UN negotiations starting in 1994 under the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), China firmly and consistently played the ‘Third World’ position. Developing countries carried “common but differentiated responsibilities”. This meant that while developed countries (primarily the West, but also including Japan) adopted binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions by specified amounts, the developing countries not only did not have any binding policy commitments but were expected to receive considerable sums in “climate finance” to assist mitigating and adapting to climate change.
The BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China – the world’s four largest ‘developing countries’) formed a bloc in 2009 to act jointly at the Copenhagen climate summit, including a possible united walk-out if their “common minimum position” was not met by the developed nations. Effectively, the Kyoto Protocol, brought into force in 2005, became an exercise in massive international income distribution, as senior UN officials openly admitted.
To be sure, the ‘third world’ position is not necessarily a cynical one. The rationale behind the ‘developing country’ position is based on the reasonable grounds of equity and historical responsibility. Since the major portion of the stock of man-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the earth’s atmosphere is accounted for by the industrialised West, the developed countries should launch serious efforts to reduce their own emissions before calling upon the developing countries to contribute.
By the time Trump came into office in 2016, China was already the world’s largest emitter of GHGs by far. By then it was also long evident that it was a stretch to call China a ‘developing’ country in any meaningful sense. President Trump boiled over last year on China‘s “developing country” status: among his many tweets, “The WTO is BROKEN when the world’s RICHEST countries claim to be developing countries to avoid WTO rules and get special treatment. NO more!!!”
China’s emergence as an economic and military power challenging US dominance in Asia and beyond is a fact not denied even by the left wing of the US Democratic party. China is one of the prime movers of global commodity and financial markets. Its investments in the much hyped Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), often grossly inflated in the business press, have nevertheless grown into an extensive web of infrastructure construction and investments in over a hundred countries.
As a source of loans for deficit-ridden governments in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, China has emerged as the major competitor to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Washington-based pillars of the post-WWII economic international system. Indeed, David Malpass, whose appointment in 2019 as World Bank chief was supported by President Trump, was an outspoken critic of the World Bank’s loans to China (and India). Malpass quite rightly argued that these countries had become rich enough to tap global capital markets on reasonable terms.
China’s Red Line
If China is no more a ‘developing country’ with little responsibility in the West-led global “fight against climate change”, then just what can a Biden administration extract from the Chinese government in decarbonization commitments? China’s state planners are likely to have a keener appreciation for the laws of physics and economics in their assessments of decarbonization than their counterparts in the West who are busy pursuing a quixotic Green Industrial Revolution. They will insist on delivering to their people an Industrial Revolution first, of the sort enjoyed by the West since its birth over two centuries ago, before signing up to anything that might come in the way.
For President-for-life Mr. Xi, who does not have elections to contend with, it is a one-shot gamble on regime stability. It would be the height of folly to imagine that President Xi would turn to Rudyard Kipling’s bravado “If you can make one heap of all your winnings… And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss” in some kind of moral turn towards international cooperation with the climate crusaders in a Biden administration.
Regime survival, China’s red line, is predicated on meeting the material aspirations of ordinary citizens, the only source of legitimacy afforded to unelected governments throughout history. China’s government fended off — with a mixture of confrontation and unstable interim agreements — President Trump’s explosive tariff diplomacy against China’s intellectual property theft, gaming of the WTO system and other US complaints. It will do so no less with the threats of border taxes on its carbon-intensive exports if that were to be John Kerry’s and his European allies’ stick in climate policy negotiations.
To the Trump-voting “deplorables”, John Kerry is “that guy who’s hanging out in Europe enjoying it, talking about the climate and flying around on his private jet”. But it will be an aged President Biden who will be landed with a policy headache of monumental proportions if he is to handle climate change and China in no uncertain manner.