Monday, January 5, 2009

A New Administration, and New Possibilities for US-China Climate Cooperation

In almost exactly fourteen days China time, the Bush Administration will recede into history, succeeded by that of Barack Obama (not that CGS, in its steadfast political neutrality, is counting).

We're only jumping the gun a little, then, to ponder the prospects for US-China environmental cooperation under a new administration. At conferences and interviews CGS has attended over the past few months, people have expressed optimism that more resources and political support will be forthcoming for such cooperation under a new administration. Moreover, the Ten Year Energy and Environment Framework, announced this past June as part of the Strategic Economic Dialogue, leaves the new administration a robust blueprint for expanding US-China environmental cooperation.

Perhaps of greatest significance, however, is the shift in tone that the Obama Administration is likely to bring to global negotiations. Zhang Haibin, an Associate Professor at Peking University's School of International Relations, provides a nice perspective on this shift from the Chinese perspective in an essay entitled "New Hope for Climate Cooperation" (available in English and Chinese):

Cooperation between China and the United States appears limited when compared with that between China and the European Union and China and Japan. There is no lack of ability for China and the United States to work together – but the will to do so has been absent, in particular in the United States....[in contrast] All the signs indicate that the new US government will raise the importance of energy and environmental issues in the China-US relationship.

Zhang also notes that domestic political circumstances in China are more favorable for international cooperation:

Also worth noting is the increased political appetite in China for international cooperation on climate change, including making agreements with the United States. China’s cooperative attitude at the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, met with widespread praise. Also in 2007, the Report to the 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party listed protection of the global environment as a goal for Chinese diplomacy.

In 2008, the Communist Party Political Bureau held its first discussions on climate change, with Hu Jintao stressing that climate change is of great importance both now and for future generations. These major changes in China’s climate change politics show that there is increasing political will for cooperation with the United States, which hopefully will match up with similar aims of the Obama government and provide new impetus for climate-change partnership between the two countries.

However, Zhang notes the existence of two major impediments to greater cooperation, both of which are worthy of major attention. The financial crisis, writes Zhang, is likely to distract China for some time, and a "lack of mutual trust" remains a major issue. As Zhang explains,

"In the United States, there are worries that cooperation will reduce the international competitiveness of American companies and therefore increase unemployment – potentially changing the US lifestyle. In China, many believe that the United States is using climate change as an excuse to hold back China’s peaceful development. Both sides worry that they will lose out by cooperating."

This situation, often noted with respect to climate change, represents a key threat to the future of the planet. In CGS's view, progress on reducing this "climate tension" is best sought by reforming the whole global system, including the trade regime. The objective would be to make developing nations real stakeholders in the global issues of the day, rather than peripheral actors as is the case at the World Bank and other important institutions. If this wholesale reform is pursued adequately, developing nations will have more cause to cooperate on environmental matters (see previous post on global environmental governance for more preaching on this subject).

Zhang concludes his essay with a nice antidote to this gloomy picture. If the US and China can cooperate effectively on climate, he writes, it can "become the bright spot of China-US relations and provide mutual understanding and trust -- an anchor for ensuring long-term stable relationships." Now that's some New Year's optimism for you.

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