U.S. President Joe Biden has made no secret of his desire to work with China on combating climate change. His counterpart Xi Jinping might hope to trade China’s cooperation for concessions on other issues, whether trade or Taiwan. In this case, however, Xi would be wiser not to haggle.
In theory, Biden does need Xi more than the other way around. Climate change is the U.S. president’s top priority. And, if Biden wants to rally the world behind a major new effort to prevent global warming, he will need China’s support at the follow-up to the Paris climate conference, to be held in Glasgow later this year.
Meanwhile, China arguably has less to prove in the eyes of the world. The country — home to almost half of the world’s electric vehicles — has made impressive progress in introducing clean energy. Xi’s recent pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 has been universally welcomed, especially in contrast to the retrograde policies of the Trump administration.
Biden on the other hand faces immense hurdles to restoring U.S. credibility. Despite his fine sentiments, the rest of the world knows that fierce Republican resistance will stymie many of his policies. Other countries will think twice about raising their own climate ambitions, knowing that Trump or one of his acolytes could win back the presidency in 2024 and reverse any progress Biden may have made by then.
Nevertheless, Xi may not have as much leverage as he might think. For one thing, China remains the world’s largest emitter of CO2, responsible for 28% of the world’s total emissions in 2020. Obstructing progress on climate for transactional reasons would quickly draw the ire of the international community.
Moreover, trying to drive a hard bargain isn’t likely to yield all that much. Antipathy toward China runs so wide and deep in the U.S. political establishment that Biden’s ability to make any substantive concessions is limited. His climate envoy John Kerry has already ruled out trading favors in other areas for Chinese support on climate. Unless China gives some sign of changing course — for instance, in its approach to Xinjiang or Hong Kong — Biden would pay too high a political cost for any broad attempt to mend ties.
Finally, the most significant points of friction in the Sino-U.S. relationship — tariffs, technology, Taiwan and human rights — are so distinct from climate that it would be tactically difficult to execute a trade. At most, Xi might plausibly demand a more friendly atmosphere in bilateral ties, including a resumption of high-level communications.
China also has some work to do to shore up its own position on climate. Despite Xi’s vow to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, the government has issued no detailed action plan to reach that target. One is needed, and it should feature steps to end Chinese investments in coal-fired power plants along the Belt and Road. At the moment, Chinese loans finance about a quarter of the coal plants being built outside China.
China should recognize as well that its rise brings new responsibilities. Since rich countries have produced the bulk of CO2 emissions (the U.S. alone accounts for a quarter of cumulative CO2 emissions, almost twice as much as China), Xi can help keep up pressure on the West to provide funding for developing countries to meet the climate crisis. At the same time, given its economic heft, China must be willing to offer its own financial contributions as well.
Taking such steps, and cooperating with the Biden administration, would advance China’s national interests, help improve its global standing and stabilize ties with the U.S. It would earn goodwill not just from Biden but from European leaders, making it even harder for the U.S. to recruit them as full partners in an anti-China coalition. And real progress at Glasgow would accelerate the clean-energy transition, an area in which China has taken a significant lead, boosting its sales of wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels.
Indeed, China could even propose that G-20 countries negotiate a new treaty to facilitate the trade, investment and transfer of clean-energy technologies. With strict protections for intellectual property, such a pact would benefit both China, a manufacturing superpower, and the U.S., a leader in innovation.
This strategy might not win Xi any quick victories over the U.S. But it’s the more realistic approach — and one that promises substantial long-term benefits for China.
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