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Opinion Our climate change strategy can’t be dependent on China

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a giant screen at a media center in Shanghai on Nov. 4. (Reuters/Andrew Galbraith) (Staff/Reuters)
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The Biden administration is reportedly divided over how to persuade China to cooperate on climate change. But Chinese President Xi Jinping is making it crystal clear he’s not interested, at least for now. The United States needs to pivot to a climate change strategy that is clear-eyed about China and doesn’t make America’s energy future dependent on good relations with Beijing.

When President Biden came into office, he appeared to believe he could develop a close, personal relationship with his Chinese counterpart and thereby improve the increasingly rocky U.S.-China relationship. But almost a year in, Biden seems to be realizing that China under Xi has changed. Cooperation even on matters likely to offer common ground, such as climate change, is essentially impossible. After a year of earnest outreach, all of the Biden team’s efforts have been rebuffed. Xi didn’t even bother to attend the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, or the Group of 20 meeting in Rome.

“China basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate,” Biden said during a news conference in Rome. “And there’s a reason why people should be disappointed in that. I found it disappointing myself.”

For those following recent developments inside China, Xi’s no-shows were no surprise. China’s president-for-life hasn’t left his country since the covid-19 pandemic started. He has a full plate at home. Xi is simultaneously purging his opponents; cracking down on the tech, financial, education, gaming and real estate industries; expanding China’s nuclear arsenal fourfold; suffocating Hong Kong; menacing Taiwan; expanding the Uyghur atrocities; squashing new covid outbreaks; and preparing for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Domestically, Xi is literally rewriting the history books and building a cult of personality not seen since Mao. The credibility of all this depends on Xi continuing China’s economic expansion and enforcing a nationalist-socialist ideology that decries Western institutions and their values. Reducing carbon emissions is simply not on his priority list. Moreover, cooperating with the United States on anything is politically risky for him.

“We often make the mistake that we mirror image and impose our priorities on them, and that’s just not the case,” said Michael Sobolik, fellow for Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “If climate change matters this much to Biden, he’s going to need to divorce himself from the notion he can do any of this with China.”

Inside the Biden administration, some officials such as climate envoy John F. Kerry argue that overall relations must improve for Beijing to be willing to cooperate on climate. Other officials like national security adviser Jake Sullivan maintain that China should cooperate on climate out of self-interest. The result is policy paralysis.

Right now, the Democratic House leadership is holding up a bill to expand sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for forced labor of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. The leaders seem to be buying into Beijing’s line that climate change progress requires giving China a pass for committing genocide. That’s not only morally wrong but also strategically stupid.

So long as Chinese firms have markets for forced-labor products, competitors from other countries (such as the United States) will never be able to compete. Ignoring the atrocities will only leave us even more dependent on China for energy going forward. By cracking down on China’s human rights abuses, the United States could actually increase its competitive advantage on developing the industries of the future.

“If we are not going to sit around waiting for the [Chinese Communist Party] to see the light on climate change, let’s move forward with addressing the threat they pose and take away their ability to use a genocidal region as a hub for their Belt and Road Initiative,” Sobolik said.

Rather than focusing on persuading Beijing to sign vague, nonbinding pledges, the Biden administration should be focused on building out a domestic climate change industry whose supply lines don’t run through China.

Over the next decades, the United States and its partners will need secure supply chains for solar panels, semiconductors, electric vehicles, rare earth materials and much more. That will require more investment up front, but it will create more U.S. jobs and stronger national security in the long run. Also, it means saving the planet without becoming complicit in crimes against humanity.

We must always leave the door open to cooperation with China, but not at the cost of intentionally blinding ourselves to the reality of the situation. China will pursue its own development on its own terms. It’s hubristic to think we can change that in the near term.

China’s failure on climate change is not the fault of Kerry nor the China hawks in Washington. The blame rests with the decision-makers in Beijing. Now, the job of the United States is to be clear-eyed about the choice China has made and respond accordingly. That’s the best way to address the China challenge and the climate challenge, neither of which is getting better anytime soon.

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