Chinese President Xi Jinping (Alessia Pierdomenico /
Xi chooses international status over U.S. rivalry in accepting Biden’s invite

The chance to present Beijing as a leader in combating climate change seemed to play a role in Xi Jinping’s decision.

China’s decision to attend the April 22 Global Climate Summit hosted by the United States ends a period of debate over whether President Xi Jinping would actually accept the US invitation.  

Many observers pointed to several factors militating toward Xi not attending, including the overall deepening Sino-U.S. rivalry, the acrimonious public exchange that occurred at the recent U.S.-China meeting in Alaska, recent Chinese comments about bilateral climate cooperation being affected by the overall US-Chinese relationship, and growing U.S. arguments about the need to limit climate cooperation with China. 

While the possibility of Xi not attending might have been debated in Beijing for these and other reasons, in the end the Chinese made what must be seen as a responsible and positive decision. It seems to confirm that for China, presenting itself as a major leader in combating climate change and avoiding the likely negative image blowback that would occur if it snubbed the meeting (given all the other leaders likely attending), remain a higher priority than using global events like this to score political points in its rivalry with Washington. That is commendable.

What is not so commendable is the continued inability of both Washington and Beijing to admit that they both contribute significantly to a non-productive, zero-sum rivalry through their actions and statements, and that this rivalry in its present form can significantly undermine efforts to cooperate effectively where it counts most: on climate, pandemics, and a host of other issues that require some level of bilateral trust and credibility to achieve real results.

While U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua might recognize the necessity of developing genuinely productive bilateral relations to combat climate change, there remains a question as to how much constraint their respective governments will place on them and how committed those governments are to doing what is absolutely necessary in this area, now and over the long haul. 

China needs to take serious and urgent action to reduce its consumption of coal; but the United States, as a much richer country per capita, a much bigger emitter per capita, and with a mixed record on climate change action, also needs to do far more to set a good example.

Both governments have said — correctly —  that unchecked climate change would pose an existential threat to the United States and China (and modern civilization) in future. Despite this language, they have not in fact prioritized action to reduce emissions over traditional concerns with great power ambitions and rivalry, and the military spending stemming from these concerns. They should recognise that if the states of the world — and above all China and the United States, as the biggest emitters of carbon gases — fail to prevent runaway climate change, then 100 years from now people in both countries are going to regard the geopolitical concerns of the present as not just insignificant by comparison, but criminally insane.

Kerry had to navigate a host of U.S. objections to his recent China trip to discuss climate issues with Xie Zhenhua and declare publicly that any progress with Beijing on climate will not occur at the expense of progress on a raft of US complaints regarding China. And despite Biden’s commitment to greatly ramping up U.S. efforts to combat climate change (from a near-zero baseline during the Trump Administration), it remains to be seen whether this long-term project will be sustained under future administrations, given the current position of the Republican Party on this issue.

While Xie Zhenhuai apparently faces none of those obstacles, his government has stated that the overall U.S.-China relationship will affect bilateral Chinese cooperation on climate. Moreover, Beijing continues to resist efforts to get it to raise its climate targets and commit to major limits on carbon and methane outputs by the end of this decade. Beijing’s pledged goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060 is simply too little, too late. 

It is hoped that multilateral pressure on Washington and Beijing will move both countries to more seriously engage on climate and other pressing common concerns that should be at the top of their foreign policy agendas. And now that Xi Jinping has decided to attend tomorrow’s US-hosted climate summit, perhaps that pressure can be brought to bear.

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