Can China and the US Cooperate on Climate Change? – The Diplomat

At the UN climate change conference in Glasgow last year, the swift signing of the China-US action plan surprised observers. In an equally surprising encore, the “double act” of the two major powers during the EU-US sponsored ministerial meeting at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh was less than a welcome gesture to both observers and diplomats.

On the heels of the Biden-Xi presidential meeting in Bali, China’s climate envoy, Xi Zhenhua, made an unannounced appearance with his US counterpart, John Kerry, at an event dedicated to reducing methane emissions. Xi’s signal of support for the methane pledge, which China has not yet signed, was a clear confirmation of the resumption of official ties between China and the United States on all matters — cooperation that the latter abruptly ended. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is visiting Taiwan.

It remains to be seen whether the resumption of official negotiations can yield tangible results or translate into concrete, actionable plans. It is particularly timely to question whether Beijing and Washington can work together to develop the technologies and regulatory frameworks needed to mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce global dependence on fossil fuels.

The short answer, unfortunately yet surprisingly, is no. Broad and highly controversial, despite their purported agreement to separate the climate dossier from the context of their bilateral relations, their status as technological rivals, with the importance of technological supremacy for power projection capabilities, will be severely hampered. A common Sino-American approach to climate change.

Climate Change and the Geopolitics of Technological Innovation

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The geopolitics of climate change or the geopolitical side effects of a changing climate can be discussed through three different angels.

First, there is the overarching issue of food and resource security, and some nations are likely to convert their domestic food production capacity into a tool of power.

Second, it is also possible to discuss climate change as a risk multiplier. For instance, in places where socio-political tensions are already high or the regulatory framework with respect to extractive activities is unclear, climate change may exacerbate tensions.

A third strategic effect of climate change relates to the uneven impact both between and within nations, in which winners and losers will develop contrasting perspectives on both reversing or reinforcing the effects of climate change.

On the other hand, the geopolitics of technology and technological innovation can be explored from two perspectives: a system-level perspective, which considers technological innovation as a power booster, and a post-modern or critical lens, which shows how states exercise power. , and influencing through standardization and/or agenda setting.

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With regard to the former, suffice it to say that modern-day diplomacy and warfare are possible only because of the technological advances of the recent past. Whether it is shuttle diplomacy, digital diplomacy, remotely operated drones or the use of virtual reality as a more cost-effective alternative to traditional training regiments for pilots, it is undeniable that the conduct of both war and diplomacy is directly linked to technological advancement. . What emerges in this context is that any nation’s ability to project power and defend its vital national security interests has a strong technological element. As Mark Leonard said, “Power and influence are forged at the intersection of technology and geopolitics.”

Regarding the latter, it is a generally accepted observation that those who determine norms rule. More precisely, a person can exert significant influence if the rules of conduct or dimensions of responsible behavior are based on or rooted in his or her norms and values. Therefore, it is not surprising that the United States has been alarmed by China’s more hands-on approach to agenda-setting practices in international forums or the rapid expansion of Chinese tech companies into other markets. Washington worries that the more Chinese tech products are used around the world, the easier it is for China to export its values ​​and dictate the rules of the game.

Linking technological cooperation and environmental cooperation

To realize the link between technology and climate change, one need look no further than Beijing and Washington’s own action plans to address and combat the adverse effects of environmental degradation and a rapidly aging planet. Both countries have assigned strategic importance to technological innovation and the up-skilling of their labor markets in their fight against the climate crisis and in their push towards building a green economy.

Strategic technologies considered important for addressing and mitigating the effects of climate change can be divided into two groups. At one end of the spectrum, there are technologies that can use so-called clean sources of energy such as plants, geothermal heat or the sun. On the other hand there are technologies that are essential to the energy industry because they can make conventional forms of energy not only cleaner but also more efficient. Cases include coal gasification, carbon capture and storage and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technologies.

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In addition, there are techniques that lie between the two groups mentioned above. One group includes the technologies needed to both green the material production processes and increase the life cycle and efficiency of the material. The second group includes space-related technologies and AI. The effects of climate change can be more widely understood when states develop the ability to process large sets of satellite data more frequently. Doing so requires advances in satellite technology as well as machine learning so that more data can be processed in significantly shorter time frames.

Is cooperation possible?

From a global commons perspective, China and the United States should set aside their strategic differences and try to maximize cooperation on climate change. This is because the climate crisis presents a global threat and therefore requires a global effort to deal with it. However, the problem today is that the strategic priorities of China and the United States are not aligned. Despite their common recognition of climate change as a pressing national and global security threat, their national interests in pushing each other for global supremacy make it difficult for both to work together to address the climate crisis.

While the prospect of an all-out war between the United States and China remains slim, it is abundantly clear that the two are locked in a technological Cold War, evident in their aggressive decoupling efforts. Due to what Alex Capri describes as techno nationalism, Chinese and US behaviors are best described as “mercantilist-like”. This view links a nation’s national security, economic competitiveness and socio-political stability to technological progress.

Buoyed by its impressive economic growth, China now seeks recognition for its governance model, claiming it outperforms Western liberal democracies on many key indicators. The United States, for its part, is determined to prevent such recognition. Hence, while Chinese diplomats are playing up the virtues of their model and urging developing countries to follow China’s path, US officials are trying to counter those efforts by pointing out the general shortcomings of the Chinese model, such as the lack of respect for human rights and the individual. Privacy

This rivalry should come as no surprise. Finally, leadership and ongoing innovation in the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will certainly provide decisive economic, political and military power. This is why both countries have devoted large sums of money to financing R&D on such technologies and, in the process, have developed a zero-sum view of each other’s progress, in which China’s gains are regarded as losses for the United States. Conversely, this trend was most vividly displayed in the confirmation hearings for Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Austin said he would maintain a “laser-like focus” on sharpening the United States’ “competitive edge” against China’s increasingly powerful military and described Beijing as the United States’ “most significant threat going forward.”

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However, what makes strategic compartmentalization highly unlikely is the fact that Sino-US technological competition is not limited to innovation competition. Rather, it involves a fierce and fast-intensifying contest to establish regulatory frameworks for the development and governance of new technologies, pitting two completely different value systems against each other. A clear manifestation of this unfolding normative competition can be seen in China’s global initiative on data security as well as its recently updated Personal Information Protection Law, which aims to counter the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and the US proposal to establish G. -7 Revival of the AI ​​Treaty as well as its resident arrangement.


Throughout history, nations have sought technological superiority to strategically outflank their rivals and exercise power and influence beyond their immediate borders. Therefore, the current state of technological competition between China and the United States should not be surprising. Also their inability to co-invent technologies deemed necessary to combat climate change and collaborate on the scaling-up of such technologies. Know-how and technology transfer are seen as tools of leverage and influence, which China and the United States can use to bend other states into their spheres of influence. This trend could lead to further division and the unfortunate return of a Cold War mentality to global politics.

More broadly, the two superpowers are unlikely to separate climate change from the grand strategic context of their bilateral relations, as the evaluative gap between their governing models widens as the power gap between them shrinks. China, in fact, made this clear on the eve of Kerry’s trip to Tianjin last year, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the idea of ​​separating climate from other policy issues.

Technical cooperation to combat climate change will only be possible if Beijing and Washington manage to form a high-level committee to manage their technological rivalry; That is, to set the ground rules for eventually reaching a consensus that neither would attempt a high-tech attack on the other. As long as this setup is missing, the prospect of their technical cooperation on other fronts, including climate change, will remain illusory.


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