US-China tensions will remain even if Joe Biden rejoins Paris climate deal, observers say

Echo Xie
·3-min read

Joe Biden says he will immediately rejoin the Paris climate pact if he is elected US president, but Chinese observers say that even if he does and Washington and Beijing work together on the issue, they will still have plenty more challenges to overcome.

Biden made the pledge on Twitter on Wednesday, the day the US formally left the accord reached in the French capital in 2015.

“Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it,” he said.

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The deal, which was adopted by almost 200 countries, aims to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels this century, while pursuing ways to reduce it to 1.5 degrees.

Joe Biden says the US will rejoin the Paris accord if he wins the presidential election. Photo: AFP
Joe Biden says the US will rejoin the Paris accord if he wins the presidential election. Photo: AFP

The US signed up to the deal in 2016, but President Donald Trump withdrew from it the following year, saying it placed an unfair burden on American workers, businesses and taxpayers.

If Biden makes good on his promise, the relationship between China and the US might improve on the climate change issue, but Shi Yinhong, an expert on US affairs at Renmin University in Beijing, said the two sides would still have other challenges to deal with.

“China and the US could seek cooperation on areas such as climate change, non-proliferation, global health and civilian cybersecurity in principle, but the results would be limited,” he said.

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Li Shuo, a senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing, said that although there were uncertainties about how China and the US might work together on climate change, it was unlikely they would be able to rekindle the relationship they had in 2015.

“The variables include how the US designs its China policy and what are their priorities,” he said. “But the situation is different from 2015 and that close cooperation model will be hard to copy.”

The interaction between China and the US at that time was seen as a model of multilateral climate diplomacy and widely praised by the international community.

Former US president Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping made an announcement on climate change in Beijing in 2014, marking a new landmark in relations between the two nations. During Xi’s visit to the US the following year, the pair reaffirmed their commitment to implement domestic climate policies and boost cooperation. In April 2016, they issued a joint statement confirming both countries would sign the Paris deal.

Li said that if Biden did rejoin the pact, the US would have to submit its national determined contributions – its individual climate plans – in 2021. And that could be challenging “because of the scale of damage caused by the Trump administration over the past four years”, he said.

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The climate issue could even create new areas for competition between China and the US, Li said.

“For example, if the US starts a cleantech race, it may set export limits [on clean technologies] on China.”

Pang Zhongying, a professor of international relations at Ocean University in Qingdao, said that people should not view a Biden administration as an end to all China-US problems.

“We shouldn’t think we can finally take a breath as the tense relationship and confrontation between China and the Trump administration are paused,” he said. “We should not be too optimistic.”

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