China, US & climate in a wider context (Part II)

Tuesday, 23. November 2010     0 comment(s)
Andrew Jones
Research Assistant
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme

The United States and China are of profound importance to the climate negotiations, but over the last year, wider relations between the two have deteriorated, denting the chances of progress at the Cancún climate talks.

The signs before COP15 were good. Early in 2009 the new Obama administration committed itself to emissions reduction, with China later pledging to significantly reduce its carbon intensity by 2020. The US and China also agreed a package of measures on cooperation on clean energy. However, Copenhagen brought recriminations and divisions. Since the climate conflict in Denmark the wider Sino-American relations have worsened, and many of these issues cannot be extricated from the climate talks.

In March, the sinking of a South Korean ship exposed divisions in the positions of China and America, with China refusing to declare North Korea as the culprit, much to the chagrin of a US wanting to deter such incidents. In light of this, today’s events in Yeonpyeong may not help either. To the south, US posturing on long-standing territorial disputes in South China Sea and the sale of arms to Taiwan served to exacerbate fraught relations.

There are long-standing, structural economic issues alongside these quarrels, too. The valuation of the Chinese currency has been a recurrent theme, with Washington ostentatiously pressuring Beijing to allow the Yuan to appreciate, which would affect the massive US trade deficit. Additionally, China is estimated to hold around one trillion dollars’ worth of US treasury bonds; the purchase of which being important to the buoyancy of the US economy.

This is however instructive of their interdependence. Whilst theoretically China could call in the loans or cut purchasing bringing America to it knees, China is similarly dependent on a strong US economy for investment and consumption of its goods – and thus the continued growth that underpins the legitimacy of the regime. Similarly, both have common interests in averting runaway climate change, yet the stakes in a low-carbon future are high. This is poignantly shown by US inquiries into Chinese subsidies for green technologies and potential Chinese restriction of exports of rare earth metals, vital to such technologies.

It is somewhat understandable then that mistrust exits between the two parties. China feels that US attempts to engage China outside of the Kyoto framework are part of a wider attempt to make its future growth more expensive and challenging. On the grounds of equity, China refuses to have limits placed on its growth, and opposes legally binding obligations on climate policies, whilst the US is likewise unwilling to make commitments that aren’t matched by China, which could open the possibility of US businesses moving to such a less carbon-constrained country. Just last month, talks in Tianjin saw a public spat between the two, as well as the demise of any hopes of US climate legislation as the Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives.

Given this background, despite common interests and cooperation via the Six Party Talks, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, clean energy and economic issues, in the current climate it is hard to see significant rapprochement coming in Cancun.

Part I can be found here.

Photo: (flickr)

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discuss the topic

Personal information