Clinton’s China Visit Opens Door on Climate Change

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to China could be the first step in forging a partnership between the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. A leading China expert sets forth a blueprint for how the U.S. and China can slow global warming ”“ and strengthen their crucial relationship.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves this weekend for her first trip abroad, visiting Japan, Korea, China, and Indonesia. By far her most important port-of-call will be Beijing, not only because her stop suggests the emphasis she and the new U.S. president intend to place on China, but also because the new U.S. administration seems inclined to put climate change close to the center of Sino-U.S. relations.

Before anything else intrudes, now is the time to ponder what the foundation of a comprehensive, new architecture for Sino-U.S. relations might look like. Few issues bind us as closely together, or offer as much opportunity for economic gain for each country, as helping solve the climate crisis by jointly developing renewable energy technologies, launching projects to capture and store carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants, and collaborating in a host of other ways to slow global warming.

That sort of cooperation by the leaders of the world’s largest developed and developing economies and the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases —

The two nations now have a unique opportunity to tackle the most long-term danger now facing the planet.
our two nations produce between 40 to 50 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases — would go a long way toward putting these two critical nations in motion and ultimately arriving at a global solution to the climate crisis through the U.N. negotiation process. The stark reality is that if a way cannot be found for these two countries to jointly confront global warming, it will be impossible for the world as a whole to arrive at a solution.

The time for a major new Sino-U.S. collaboration on climate action could not be more opportune. With the advent of a new U.S. administration and with the central government in Beijing increasingly aware of the dangers posed by global warming, the two nations now have a unique opportunity to jointly tackle the most grave long-term danger now facing the planet. For the first time since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. and China now find themselves jointly confronted by a new threat, and thus a new common interest. Fortunately, the climate challenge offers a paradox: a major peril, but also an enormous opportunity for convergence. Moreover, arriving just as U.S. power and influence have been waning and Chinese influence has been rising, creating a new equality, this moment offers a more level playing field on which these two countries, which often chafed under unequal status, can now negotiate. Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to Beijing presents the moment when the issue can, and must, be joined with the beginnings of a new partnership.

Other Chinese-U.S. issues — currency exchange, Tibet, human rights, Taiwan — should not be forgotten in this new equation. But a new united front to address climate issues would most certainly help cushion the larger edifice of Sino-U.S. relations, and make dealing with these other contentious issues easier.

Secretary Clinton will paradoxically be aided in her efforts to build a new architecture into this relationship by the fact that President Obama has never been to Beijing, has previously said very little about China, and is thus viewed in Beijing as something of a tabula rasa. She has not been to China since 1998, when she accompanied her husband, President Bill Clinton, on a state visit. Although this relative “blankness” in both of their China experiences has caused a certain anxiety among Chinese officials, it may also prove to be something of virtue. President Obama and Secretary Clinton find themselves blessed with a relatively clean page on which to begin inscribing their new China policy.

The two countries face great challenges as they begin to work together to tackle so huge a problem — and one so fundamentally intertwined with
By working together, the U.S. and China could find themselves as global leaders in a new, green economy.
their economies — as climate change. The U.S. and China are at very different stages in their development. China has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. But China remains a developing country, and the U.S.’s cumulative historic emissions are more than three times greater than China’s, and U.S. per capita emissions are nearly five times larger than China’s.

But a way forward can be found under the principle of common-but-differentiated responsibilities by recognizing that tackling the climate problem offers tremendous economic opportunities for both countries during the current global recession. By working together, the U.S. and China could find themselves the ultimate winners as global leaders in a new, green economy.

How to move forward? After than more than a year of study and consultation, the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations (of which I am director) and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change have developed a blueprint for action: “Common Challenge, Collaborative Response: A Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change.” The task force that assembled the report was co-chaired by Steven Chu, the new U.S. energy secretary, and included more than 50 policy experts, politicians, business people, and environmentalists from both countries.

The report, which was released on the eve of Secretary Clinton’s China trip, urges President Obama and President Hu Jintao to convene a summit meeting soon and launch a “U.S.-China Partnership on Energy and Climate Change.” A joint high-level council and bilateral task forces should then immediately begin collaborating on the following initiatives, among others:

  • Jointly developing and deploying technologies to capture and store CO2 from coal-burning power plants, since both nations will continue to rely heavily on coal for some time. China and the U.S. should take the lead in developing 10 to 15 large-scale demonstration projects to sequester carbon around the world.
  • Increasing collaboration on developing renewable energy technologies and on improving energy efficiency. Inventing and deploying wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable technologies would mean a major expansion of these industries in each country, aiding economic recovery and development.
  • Jointly working to develop advanced electrical grids in both countries to improve efficiency and accommodate new, alternative sources of power.
  • More accurate statistical quantification of greenhouse gas emissions to enhance more reliable projections, and working on new ways to stimulate financing of low-carbon technologies that encourage private sector involvement.

Launching such a collaborative effort would greatly improve the chances of success at crucial U.N. climate talks to be held in December in Copenhagen. The collaboration also has the potential to enhance prospects of passing vital climate legislation, including laws capping greenhouse gas emissions, in the U.S. and China.

Furthermore, a climate partnership would go a long way toward stabilizing the most important bilateral relationship in the world today, even presaging the kind of win-win “paradigm shift” in foreign policy that
the U.S. and China last experienced back in 1972 when Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, goaded on by the common challenge of the U.S.S.R., initiated diplomatic ties with Mao Zedong. That is the kind of leadership the world has been missing from the U.S. and that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama now have an opportunity to restore. It is also the kind of leadership that the world is increasingly expecting from a rising China.

Long after the current economic crisis is over, the situation in Tibet has been calmed, arguments over currency exchange have been forgotten, and the Taiwan split has been resolved, the world will only be beginning to confront the daunting effects of climate change. To date, the U.S. and China have been largely out of the game of climate change solutions. Without our two countries whole-heartedly in the game, there is, honestly speaking, no meaningful game being played.

It would represent a truly new beginning in both worldwide efforts to remedy climate change and Sino-U.S. relations, if this global problem, to which America and China are the largest contributors, could be now be squarely faced by both countries in partnership. This is the real challenge of Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to China.