A coal fired electric generation plant in China. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
A coal-fired electric generation plant in China. Photo: iStock / Getty Images

It seems irrational that a collection of political disagreements could prevent the world’s two strongest states from cooperating to prevent the planet they share from becoming uninhabitable. Sadly, history presents several cases of societies that destroyed themselves through poor stewardship of their natural environment.

In some instances, elites pursued political conflicts at the expense of resource conservation, with the eventual result of desolating their own homelands. On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), for example, competition between chiefs to build more impressive moai caused catastrophic deforestation, as transporting the huge blocks of stone required logs as rollers.

Archeologists seek to reproduce the mechanism with which Easter Islanders moved their huge moai monoliths. Photo: ariell.ac.il

Something similar is happening today on a global scale. China’s new insistence that Washington must make concessions before the two countries can work together, combined with the Chinese Communist Party’s inability to lift its gaze beyond the objective of regime security, are obstacles to bilateral cooperation on climate change.

This threatens not only to worsen an increasingly adversarial US-China relationship but also to undercut support for urgent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions within the United States.

As recently as 2020, Chinese officials and government-linked commentators were following a decades-old approach to their relations with the United States: imploring the US government to set aside areas of disagreement for the sake of bilateral cooperation on issues of common interest.

The basis of China’s diplomacy with the United States, however, has shifted. 

Most Americans noticed the shift during the meeting of senior US and PRC officials in Alaska in March when Politburo member Yang Jiechi said Beijing would no longer accept that the US government could “speak to China from a position of strength.”

When US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited China in July seeking to establish “guardrails” in the bilateral relationship, she instead received a calculated ritual humiliation: Chinese officials presented her with a total of 26 “demands” that the US cease certain alleged anti-China policies. 

Beijing typically hands lists of demands to governments it considers clearly weaker than China. Australia got this treatment in November 2020.

A similar condescending tone was apparent in Chinese government media reporting of the phone conversation between US President Joe Biden and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping on September 10. This reportage emphasized that Biden, desperate to patch up the US-China relationship, requested the call, but that the Chinese response was that “bilateral ties will not improve unless the US breaks from its recent pattern of behavior and corrects its mistakes.”

Instead of asking America to tolerate US disagreements with China, Beijing’s new posture, at least in public, is requiring America to accommodate China’s grievances before cooperation can resume.  The implication is that American now needs China more than the reverse and that Beijing is poised to take advantage.  

A separate problem is that the PRC and the United States have a history of not seeing eye-to-eye on the concept of transcendent issues. For the US government, some issues are too important not to cooperate on, even if bilateral relations are poor. One such issue is crisis management. Another is global human health. 

Unfortunately, however, the CCP doesn’t do transcendent issues. All of its policies and positions stem from the very earthbound objective of using all available means to maintain the party’s power and prestige. Thus, China has gone along with US attempts to improve crisis management when Beijing saw a tactical advantage.

China agreed to a US-China government hotline in 2007 and signed the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in 2014. But these Chinese commitments turned out to be superficial, readily ignored based on the political circumstances of the moment. Beijing has repeatedly disconnected or refused to answer the hotline, and since 2014 has continued to engage in intentionally unprofessional and hazardous naval maneuvers to harass US ships.

As for putting politics aside for global health, Beijing refuses that also. Chinese pressure keeps Taiwan out of the World Health Organization even though this creates a sizable weakness in the international system for fighting infectious diseases.

The CCP intensely and exclusively focuses on its own interests because it can. In a multiparty liberal democracy, a free press would expose, and voters would throw out, a party that prioritized its own self-preservation to the point of harming national or global well-being. But the lack of domestic opposition empowers the PRC leadership to burnish its legitimacy by pursuing prosperity for the Chinese at all costs.

The Chinese leadership’s new boldness toward Washington and its older predisposition to subordinate even important global issues to the welfare of the Party set the context for the two countries’ discussions on cooperation to reduce human-caused climate change.

Not surprisingly, the classic American and Chinese views clashed when US climate change czar John Kerry visited China from August 31 to September 3. Kerry repeated the US position that “climate is not ideological, not partisan and not a geostrategic weapon.”

PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi, however, said that “cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-US relations” – in effect, once again bringing out the list of demands, this time as a precondition for Chinese cooperation on climate change.

John Kerry meets Minister Wang Yi by video link during a visit by Mr Kerry to Tianjin. Photo: AFP / US State Department

Observers may be hoping that US-China relations have temporarily hit bottom, but the climate change issue creates potential for further deterioration.

That China misleadingly portrays itself as a responsible international citizen on climate change is already well known. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with more than double the output of the United States. Despite its commitment to honoring the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, China is building more new coal-fired energy plants than the rest of the world combined.

Nevertheless, it would outrage Americans to find Beijing attempting to blackmail the United States over climate change: Stop selling arms to Taiwan and cease criticizing China over cybertheft, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, or we’ll continue poisoning the earth.

This would both deepen US enmity toward the PRC government and postpone any possible recovery in the bilateral relationship.

Furthermore, to the extent that Americans perceive China is not intrinsically committed to reducing carbon emissions, the argument that China is free-riding on the costly sacrifices made by other countries will gain credibility. Why should the United States take an economic hit for the good of the world, some Americans will ask, when China cancels out these gains while enjoying unrestricted economic growth?

What should be a basis for cooperation is thus becoming another point of bilateral friction. A new cold war does not necessarily doom climate change mitigation. Each country could independently take steps to reduce its own greenhouse gases. It is lamentable, however, that although both Washington and Beijing express willingness in principle to cooperate on common issues, they seemingly cannot move expeditiously to meet the most compelling common issue of our time.

Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu