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Published on March 18th, 2009 | by ebalkan

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China Taking Uncooperative Stance on G20, Climate Treaty Terms


The G20 Global Summit, which will take place in the UK in April, stands to be an important factor in determining China’s stance on climate change commitments as Copenhagen draws near.

First, this meeting will provide the US and China a chance to meet behind the scenes, for the first time since Hillary Clinton visited China last month to initiate a discussion on robust bilateral coordination on energy and climate issues. Both Clinton and her Chinese counterparts suggested in February that the G20 meeting would give the two nations’ leaders a chance to move ahead with the compact. The next step may well be a US-China leader summit, which a recent policy think tank “roadmap” for collaboration, given to Clinton in advance of her trip, identified as a crucial building block in the process.

Secondly, this meeting will give other countries some signposts as to what they can expect from China in December. G20 participants have already expressed their expectation that China will ante up in this time of global economic need. Gauging the tone of China’s reaction to G20 participants’ financial demands will provide participating OECD countries – particularly those expecting China to make serious commitments on emissions reductions in the “Green New Deal” – some hint as to what a distressed China can be expected to deliver in environmental negotiation terms. The last two weeks’ NPC legislative session in Beijing definitively demonstrated that China’s first priority is repairing the economy, not the environment. Thus, China’s reaction to the key role G20 participants expect her to play in the summit may serve as an accurate litmus test for anticipated outcomes in Copenhagen.

China Ascending, if Somewhat Awkwardly

Chinese leaders are not accustomed to being in this kind of spotlight. They have been known to remain quiet listeners in previous international accords, choosing to survey the scene rather than make a flourish onto it. This record of international engagement, or lack thereof, contrasts significantly with statements China’s leadership have made internally regarding her position and influence in the international arena.

The timeline of nationalist, if not almost bellicose, proclamations that China will soon dominate, and play a strong role in, international affairs uttered by Hu Jintao and others began with the “peaceful rise” theory promulgated in 2005. These statements – which were toned down significantly in the run-up to the Olympics, but flared again in the face of criticism from countries like France and the US over the government’s response to last year’s Tibetan Buddhist-led demonstrations in Lhasa – have at times generated confusion on how responsive China’s leadership will be to international perspectives, and on which issues is China willing to act multilaterally, rather than unilaterally.

James Fallows characterized China’s inconsistent behavior in a November 2008 Atlantic article, arguing:

The damage China does to itself by its clumsy public presentation is obvious—though apparently not yet obvious enough to its leadership. For outsiders, the central problem is that a country that will inevitably have increasing and perhaps dominant influence on the world still has surprisingly little idea of how the world sees it. That, in turn, raises the possibility of blunders and unnecessary showdowns, and in general the predicament of a new world power stomping around, Gargantua-like, making onlookers tremble.

In the lead up to the summit, the UK and other countries have called on China to play a major role in the global recovery. Already, rumblings from China’s state-controlled media suggest leaders are not willing to meet demands that China bolster IMF funding, besides in a paltry, primarily symbolic, way. Why does China seem unwilling to do more, to “pull their weight” given the country’s abundant liquidity and an economy still highly dependent on global demand?

Developing Countries, with Benefits

The answer boils down to China’s strategic insistence that it is still a poor country deserving of the rest of the world’s assistance; not the other way around. G. John Ikenberry, a well-known international relations theorist who focuses on foreign policy has said that “As China sheds its status as a developing country (and therefore as a client of these institutions), it will increasingly be able to act as a patron and stakeholder instead.” In times like these, and on subjects like carbon abatement, China plays the developing country card, in hopes it will give them reprieve from costly and complicated climate commitments.

China’s “non-developed” status is alluded to as part of China’s position on climate policy, which the Brookings Institution “Overcoming Obstacles to US-China Cooperation on Climate Change” report lays out as:

•    Developed countries have already gone through high-emissions stages of development while developing countries still have much of this work to do. International agreements should recognize this fundamental reality.

The other two framework issues identified in the report are:

•    Metrics should not focus on total national emissions and neglect to account for per capita emissions in densely-populated countries.

•    Countries should be held responsible not only for their current emissions but also for their cumulative historical emissions, given that greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere over many decades.

While environmentalists remain hopeful they can navigate around, or find cracks, in this framework, they are unlikely to reach consensus on the issue of responsibility.

The Blame Game

A controversial new report “Journey to world top emitter”, which will soon be published in Geophysical Research Letters, concludes that 50 percent of increases in Chinese CO2 emissions between 2002 to 2005 were due to export production, of which 60 percent came from goods exported to western countries. This study, and others like it, point to Western consumption-driven culpability.

The scholarship-supported assignment of guilt is shaping China’s position on the terms of the next climate change treaty. Just Monday, during a trip to Washington, senior climate official, Li Gao, insisted that China’s export sector be exempt from carbon emissions reductions in the next treaty on climate change.

Given the state of the global economy, and China’s latest G20 Summit and Washington posturing on financial and environmental commitments, China’s leverage in the international arena is clearly on the rise. For the sake of the environment, let’s hope it’s not just peaceful, but sustainable too.

Photo Credit: Foxspain on Flickr



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