As Chinese strategists pored over foreign-policy papers this week to prepare for a key Sino-U.S. meeting in Anchorage, Alaska on Thursday, outside their windows, a howling sandstorm enveloped Beijing. The sandstorm revived Chinese anxieties about creeping desertification—but it also offered up a small measure of hope for what has been until now a serious worsening of U.S.-China relations.
The eerie orange cloud of Gobi Desert sand—Beijing’s worst sandstorm in a decade—was a wordless reminder that both sides face a common challenge they say they are determined to confront: global climate change.
In recent weeks, the Sino-U.S. relationship has been dominated by strident disagreements over trade, human rights, and Pacific security, as evidenced by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit this week to two key U.S. allies: Japan and South Korea. But in both Washington and Beijing, the climate portfolio is edging back into the limelight after a four-year-long hibernation. In Beijing, hints of something positive peeking through the distrust and disputes began last month when Beijing announced that Xie Zhenhua would come out of semi-retirement to be China’s new climate change guru.
Xie will be the counterpart to John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate. And in the past, the two senior diplomats have enjoyed a close working relationship: Xie is known for helping broker the 2015 Paris climate accords, from which former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in 2017.
“I know him very well because I’ve worked with him for … 20 years or so,” Kerry told Reuters in an interview published Feb. 4. A former secretary of state and U.S. presidential candidate, Kerry called Xie a “leader” and “capable advocate” for China on the issue of climate change.
Many Chinese analysts say Xie’s appointment means climate talks could be a safe channel for bilateral communications, echoing the kinder, gentler tone of years past when a Sino-U.S. deal to cooperate on climate change was key to brokering the Paris accords. Xie’s return to a senior government post is unusual, given that he’s 71 years old, past the normal retirement age for his rank.
After leading China’s global climate negotiations from 2007 to 2018, Xie continued to make policy proposals to higher-ups in his capacity as head of the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, a think tank at the prestigious Tsinghua University. Avuncular in appearance but tenacious in action, Xie and like-minded colleagues hammered home the message that providing basic environmental conditions, such as clean air and arable farmland, is not only in China’s interest but also part of the grand bargain that enables the ruling Chinese Communist Party to stay in power. Xie’s institute and other research organs also mapped out strategies for individual chunks of the bureaucracy, such as the electricity sector, to strive for net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050. Perhaps the most notable reflection of Xie’s efforts is the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping himself recently began promoting “ecological civilization” and suggesting that a healthy environment will help make China great again.
“Whether the process is front end-loaded or back end-loaded, when the president of China makes a high-profile commitment, it makes me think it’ll get done,” said London-based business consultant Mark Pinner, who focuses on China issues.
Nor had Xie cut his ties with U.S. interlocutors, even after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris accords and dubbed Beijing a “strategic competitor.” China “never lost contact with state governments, universities, and enterprises in the U.S.,” Xie told Bloomberg in an interview last October. “We are always willing to carry out cooperation.” He’s also kept his eye on society’s grassroots movements. He donated generously to Tsinghua, his alma mater, hoping to help nurture younger Chinese climate leaders. He’s visited polar regions and “witnessed climate impact on glaciers and the suffering of polar bears,” he told Tsinghua students in a speech. Most importantly, Xie seems to have helped persuade some Chinese officials to stop claiming that the West was to blame for global warming and that U.S. calls for China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were intended to sabotage Beijing’s future development.
To be sure, Sino-U.S. tensions and rivalry dominate most headlines, ranging from credible reports of human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region to military activities in the Pacific Ocean to trade and tech wars. Recently, senior U.S. officials described China as “the greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st century” just before a virtual meeting among top leaders of the so-called Quad nations—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—which Beijing perceives to be a policy of encirclement. “Quad cannot replicate NATO” declared a headline in the Chinese newspaper the Global Times, which often reflects nationalistic voices.
Whether and when Beijing and Washington might start looking for common ground may begin to come into focus on March 18, when China’s top foreign-policy official Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi are slated to meet Blinken and White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Anchorage. This is the first meeting at such a senior level since Biden’s inauguration, but its tone is expected to be blunt.
To begin with, the two sides couldn’t even agree on what to call the talks. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson described the Anchorage meeting as part of a “strategic dialogue.” But testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Blinken flatly said, “this is not a strategic dialogue” and made no commitment to further engagement.
Nonetheless, despite his aggressive nationalism on other fronts, Xi is the most important Chinese leader to embrace the new mantra that fighting climate change and seeking carbon neutrality is in Beijing’s own national interest. Xi startled observers last September when he unexpectedly declared to the United Nations General Assembly that Beijing was committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2060, with emissions peaking before 2030. Ever since this unprecedented pledge, Chinese bureaucrats have been scrambling to try to ensure their own statements—and job performances—are in sync.
“With Xi having set this high-level target, the Chinese government has been moving to deliver,” Pinner said. “The new policy direction has already begun to raise the priority of the environment among the government’s announcements.”
But friendlier rhetoric and vaguely aspirational statements go only so far. At the moment, Beijing’s 2060 carbon-neutrality target and its apparent short-term goals don’t quite seem to line up. Beijing’s near-term ambitions, as reflected in the five-year plan through 2025, are underwhelming. Business as usual could prevail until 2030, the year of peak carbon emissions, and then carbon dioxide emissions “are supposed to plummet from 2030 to 2060,” said one foreign analyst who requested anonymity. “I’m a bit skeptical.”
Coal still accounted for 58 percent of China’s energy mix in 2019. And last year, Chinese entities proposed the construction of a staggering 73.5 gigawatts of new coal-powered plants—more than quintuple the rest of the world combined. While saying he hoped the U.S. could “work with China,” Kerry cited China’s continuing dependence on coal-fired plants and observed that “China has said they’re going to do something by 2060, but we don’t have a clue really yet how they’re going to get there.”
Yet one thing has changed. After Xi’s pledge before the U.N., China’s central government is now pressuring provinces to comply. A January environmental report with high-level government backing accused China’s National Energy Administration of skirting anti-pollution regulations by allowing excessive construction of coal-powered plants—and of “deviation in ideological understanding.”
It was a rare public rebuke of China’s deeply entrenched kings of coal. Such naming and shaming incidents may well accelerate now that environmental-protection warriors like Xie are seen to have top-level backing. In a March 13 emergency meeting, the vice mayor of Tangshan, a steel-making hub in north China less than 135 miles from Beijing, ordered steel and cement factories to limit or halt production—to cut toxic emissions—on days with a heavy pollution alert. The move followed a surprise visit by central government inspectors who found four local plants in violation of regulations. “Responsible persons” were detained, according to the city government. And the vice mayor warned that factory owners who failed to comply could face criminal liability or “being exposed by media outlets” and added to a social-credit blacklist.
The swiftness of the crackdown may be linked to the fact that choking smog had smothered northern China at precisely the same time senior Chinese officials were attending Beijing’s annual Parliament session. For years, Chinese authorities have worried that climate change is overtaking formerly forested areas and leading to desertification, especially in Inner Mongolia. During the recent Parliament session, Xi met the Inner Mongolia delegation, described its arid region as an “ecological security barrier” in north China, and identified “deserts” for the first time in a string of natural habitats that China should protect.
Even if China gets more serious about combatting emissions, however, the jury’s still out on what veteran negotiators Xie and Kerry could achieve in terms of genuine Sino-U.S. cooperation. Kerry has already made clear that bilateral climate talks cannot become a “trade-off” related to other core issues, such as human rights or trade. “This is a free-standing international crisis, which all of us need to deal with no matter what,” he said. And after what Beijing calls the “chaos” of the Trump years, many Chinese officials remain wary that any sort of Sino-U.S. cooperation could be sabotaged yet again by another wild-card U.S. president four years from now.
Officials on both sides acknowledge the bilateral relationship has some areas of potential cooperation, such as combating climate change and the pandemic. Who takes the first step, and how big a step, depends a lot on internal politics in Washington and Beijing. (One baby step came recently when Washington and Beijing confirmed that officials from both sides would co-chair a G-20 study group focused on climate-related financial risks.)
For his part, Biden cannot afford to seem soft on China by relaxing Trump’s tough approach. Nor is Xi inclined to make concessions. His support at home has grown with the perception that Beijing has vanquished COVID-19 more quickly than many countries in the West. On the sidelines of China’s annual Parliament session in early March, Xi declared that China can now look the world in the eye, unlike back “when we were still bumpkins.”
That suggests no dramatic breakthroughs are expected any time soon. Even this week’s meeting location has a whiff of carefully negotiated calibration about it. Anchorage is on U.S. soil, but it also happens to be closer to Beijing than to Washington. And Alaska’s glaciers are melting at a record rate due to climate change, silently reminding both sides it may be time to meet halfway.
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