A week after getting an invitation from the United States to attend a global leaders’ climate summit, Beijing said it was still considering whether to take part, highlighting the challenges it faces in dealing with Washington.
Analysts said the response from China on Thursday underscored a political dilemma for Beijing, which had pinned its hopes on resetting deeply troubled bilateral ties through climate cooperation.
In its first official response to the invitation issued by US President Joe Biden on March 26, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Thursday that Beijing was yet to decide whether it would attend the gathering of leaders from more than 40 countries.
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“[We] have received the invitation and are carefully studying it,” she said. “The Chinese side will make our contribution to the global fight against climate change and is willing to strengthen cooperation with the international community with our input.”
Her remarks, according to observers, show the difficulty Beijing faces both in delivering on the ambitious climate commitment it made last year and, more importantly, in finding the right balance between cooperation and rivalry with the Biden administration.
Analysts in Beijing said Xi would “almost definitely” accept the invitation, despite the rancour between the rival powers in recent weeks over their ideological divide and China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Although Biden’s invitation should not be read as an overture from the White House, “China will participate in the virtual, multilateral summit and that’s for sure”, said Shi Yinhong, a US affairs expert at Beijing’s Renmin University.
He said it would be unthinkable for the Biden administration to fail to enlist China – the world’s top carbon emitter and energy consumer – in its efforts to regain world leadership on global warming after recommitting the US to the Paris climate agreement.
Biden made it clear after he took office that aside from competition and confrontation, there would also be cooperation between China and the US. Climate change was singled out by senior administration officials as the most likely area for the two to work together.
Li Shuo, a senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia, said Beijing’s hesitation in accepting the invitation was more likely to do with concern about what it could bring to the table.
“It is a difficult test for China. All eyes will be on whether China is ready to double down on the carbon neutrality commitment it made last year,” he said.
Beijing surprised the world in September when Xi unveiled an ambitious goal to make China carbon neutral by 2060. The move, which would see net carbon emissions of the country’s coal-dependent, growth-obsessed economy reduced to zero just three decades after reaching a peak by 2030, has been met with both cheers and scepticism over its practicality and feasibility.
Any fresh commitments from Beijing in the lead-up to or during the summit would be significant for the global climate campaign as well as China’s domestic environmental battle, and may also decide the fate of climate-change cooperation in China’s relations with the Biden administration, according to Li.
“If China decides to present its ‘gift’ [of fresh climate commitments] to Biden, it should have some positive impact on the US-China feud as it would help Biden convince his critics at home that there is still room for cooperation with Beijing.
But if China chooses not to do so, it would be hard to see how climate can still play a meaningful role in easing tensions and promoting cooperation,” he said.
Li suggested China could introduce an absolute target on carbon emissions or offer to cut public finance for new coal-powered plants inside China and among projects associated with the Belt and Road Initiative.
While both offers would have an economic impact and be challenging for China domestically, Li said they could be delivered and would give China the moral high ground, having met some of the key demands by the United States, the European Union and global climate groups.
Environmentalists in the US and other countries have cast doubt over China’s carbon neutrality pledge and pointed out that China has continued to build new coal-fired plants – a major source of pollution – around the world.
Coal is the “dominant destination for China’s overseas energy investment”, said Cecilia Han Springer, senior researcher at Boston University’s Global China Initiative.
“Biden’s commitment to phasing out public finance for fossil fuels overseas is putting pressure on some other countries, like Japan, to do the same,” she said. “Such a parallel commitment from China would be very surprising to me – welcome, but surprising.”
But according to Shi Yinhong, even if Beijing and Washington decided to substantially cooperate on climate change, it was unlikely to alter the downward spiral of relations between the two countries.
“I am afraid [climate cooperation] is rather insignificant and won’t play a decisive role in reversing bilateral ties. Because such cooperation would inevitably be intertwined with their intensifying vying for prestige and influence on the world stage, as well as their fight for power and standing in global governance,” he said.
“While everyone appears to care about climate change, they have nonetheless given priority to their immediate interests in those pressing ideological and geopolitical issues.”
The White House said the US would announce an “ambitious 2030 emissions target” under the Paris Agreement ahead of the April 22-23 summit. “In his invitation, the president urged leaders to use the summit as an opportunity to outline how their countries also will contribute to stronger climate ambition,” it said.
Invitations have also gone out to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan.
If Xi did attend, it would be the first time he and Biden had met, even virtually, as leaders of the world’s two biggest economies and emitters of greenhouse gases.
Despite worsening US-China relations, Washington and Beijing do not yet appear to have given up on the possibility of collaborating on climate issues, even if they remain at odds in nearly every other aspect of the relationship.
In mid-March, senior Washington and Beijing diplomats met for the first time in Alaska and, after verbal sparring in front of television cameras, ultimately agreed to form a “joint working group” on climate change, according to Chinese state media.
A few days later, Biden’s top climate official John Kerry joined a virtual meeting on climate change co-hosted by China – though, according to the State Department, Kerry had “no plans” to meet his Chinese counterpart during the event. As secretary of state under former US president Barack Obama, Kerry helped negotiate the Paris climate accord.
Kelly Sims Gallagher, academic dean and director of the climate policy lab at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, said the two countries must maintain an open dialogue.
“They need to have clear and complete understandings of each other so that mistrust does not accumulate,” she said. “I do not think that cooperation is necessary at this juncture, but coordination and dialogue are essential.”
According to David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative, the US-China relationship will take time to rebuild.
“We can’t imagine that things are going to reset in some automatic way to the dynamic that there was before Paris, in terms of cooperation on climate,” Waskow said. “It may take a bit to get back to that kind of fully cooperative and fully aligned relationship between the two.”
“I would stress though, from the perspective of the world as a whole, we need these two countries – the two largest emitters – to find a path forward, and find ways to align their actions.”
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong
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