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We Can’t Fight Climate Change Without China

The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform echoes President Trump’s hawkishness on China. That’s a mistake.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a state luncheon in 2015.

As lawmakers bickered over the next stimulus package in late July, the Democratic Party unveiled an election 2020 draft platform suggesting an unusual amount of bipartisan unity on one issue: China. Broadly adopting much of President Donald Trump’s antagonism, Democrats pledged to “stand up” to the world’s second largest economy. Although a Cold War would be a “trap,” party leaders wrote, and Trump’s trade war has been a disaster, “Democrats will take aggressive action against China or any other country that tries to undercut American manufacturing by manipulating their currencies.” This sentence echoed Trump’s allegation that China has been slashing its currency value, a claim generally agreed to have very little remaining evidence behind it.

Together, China and the United States account for nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Donald Trump’s administration has done everything in its power to prop up coal, oil, and gas while in office through generous tax breaks and regulatory rollbacks. (Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged to reverse his course if elected, albeit with scant language on phasing out fossil fuels.) China’s climate progress has also been a mixed bag: Although Beijing invested heavily in green technology and low-carbon infrastructure after the last recession, subnational governments and the county’s coal lobby continue to push for coal build-outs, and the Belt and Road Initiative has financed both fossil fuel and renewables projects throughout the Global South. Like their economies more broadly, these countries’ future energy transitions are linked. Cooperation between the two will be critical to getting the world off of fossil fuels. But right now, neither party in the U.S. seems interested in that, content instead to fumble together into a disastrous new era of great-power conflict.

Though stopping short of Trump and his cronies’ all-out belligerence toward China, Democrats’ China policy still features an all-sticks-no-carrots approach, applying double standards on what is and isn’t acceptable statecraft. The 2020 platform pledges, for example, to challenge China’s use of “illegal subsidies” to Chinese industries, subsidies similar in kind to the lighter-touch industrial policy laid out in Biden’s own climate plan. Democrats promise to “rally a united front of nations to hold China accountable to high environmental standards in its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects, so that China can’t outsource pollution to other countries.” This, too, carries a whiff of hypocrisy: While the Belt and Road Initiative is indeed financing fossil fuels outside of China, Biden’s climate plan leaves the door open for the U.S. to continue being among the world’s top exporters of coal, oil, and gas—a status he helped usher in as vice president, boosting U.S. gas in Eastern Europe. Biden’s plan makes oblique reference to the need to “offer Belt and Road Initiative countries alternative sources of development financing for lower-carbon energy investments”; he’s been similarly opaque about what his commitment to the Green Climate Fund will look like, a body set up through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process to finance climate mitigation and adaptation. Absent a real investment plan, it’s not clear what leverage the U.S. would have to influence Belt and Road standards or any other climate policy besides the threat of sanctions or military force.

Such threats would be as counterproductive under a Democratic administration as they have been under Trump’s. “Economic uncertainty always leads China to revert back to tried and true industries. You see it now with the Covid recession, which has put a lot of pressure on local governments to shore up growth,” said Jonas Nahm, assistant professor of energy, resources, and environment at Johns Hopkins University. In the first half of 2020, China approved more new plants since it had since 2016, even as the rest of the world backed away from the fuel and after its Big 5 state-owned power producers moved last December to phase out a third of their coal fleet by 2021. The economic fallout of any new Cold War, Nahm added, “would strengthen the fossil fuel industry within the country and make it harder to get rid of the existing coal base and reliance on heavy industry.”

Some advocates to the left of Democratic leaders suggest an alternative approach: Instead of fighting the Belt and Road Initiative, the U.S. could participate in it. “If we were serious about this, we would have the U.S. partner with China around investments and financing in One Belt One Road and turn that into a global clean energy investment and financing project,” said Tobita Chow, director of Justice Is Global, a special project of the progressive organizing and advocacy group People’s Action. Working to change the initiative as a partner with a financial stake would give the U.S. more leverage to demand better practices across the board. “There are a lot of abusive practices, and issues of uneven power dynamics with Global South governments and workers. However, it is what we have to work with in terms of financing for Global South infrastructure. A U.S. government that’s serious about climate change ought to offer partnership in exchange for improved standards around labor and making sure that all of these projects are focused on benefiting the local workforce.”

Instead of collaborating with China, Biden’s climate plan imagines a green recovery centered on clean domestic manufacturing, part of a “Made in America” recovery push to undercut China’s “edge on the technologies of tomorrow that will generate well-paying jobs.” This pledge to “put the United States back in the driver’s seat” ignores the reality of China’s current green technology advantage: Over the last several decades, Chinese economic planning has invested billions into developing and deploying low-carbon technologies. The country is now home to some of the most cutting-edge expertise for producing them and exports those technologies around the world, including to the U.S. Trying to replicate that in the U.S. rather than working with China’s existing capacity makes no sense from either an emissions-cutting or economic standpoint.

The U.S. could boost its cleantech manufacturing capacity while still importing batteries, electric vehicle parts, and other low-carbon technologies from China and other countries; those aren’t mutually exclusive. “There’s all sorts of stuff we can do to play in these areas, but all of those outcomes are going to be better in an open trading system where China is keeping us on our toes,” Nahm said. “If we have less than ten years to turn things around on climate, that’s not a timeframe on which we can build the great American solar industry.”

Simultaneously, the U.S. should get its own house in order on climate. “It’s not an area where we can extract too many demands from China because we don’t do much ourselves,” Nahm pointed out, noting the U.S.’s more general withdrawal from international institutions under Trump. Recognizing each country’s shared stake in creating a low-carbon world could help change things. “It’s complicated, but I do think that agreeing to buy Chinese green products for a while and keeping the trade relationship open would give us some leverage and change domestic politics in China.”

Republican China hawks have pointed to the authoritarian crackdown in Hong Kong and violent persecution of the country’s Muslim minority, the Uighers. In addition to such arguments being a tough sell, globally—few see the U.S. government as a reliable ally to Muslims—they’re unlikely to encourage Chinese moderation. Fanning nationalist flames in the U.S. does the same abroad, empowering the most reactionary members of President Xi Jingping’s administration by confirming their worst suspicions about American aims in Asia. “There’s a growing sense in China at both an elite and a popular level that the U.S. is aiming to start a war with China,” Chow said. “If you think that’s the trend and there’s a sense of fatalism growing around that, then what is the upside to agreeing to U.S. demands around anything?”

Progressives, he added, have to walk a careful line: not engaging in apologetics for authoritarianism while also recognizing that the Chinese government consists of competing interests, and that Chinese people are engaged in all manner of worker uprisings and social movements that oppose both domestic state repression and U.S. aggression from the mainland to Hong Kong to Taiwan. Chow sees solidarity between progressives across continents as key to moving away from bipartisan hawkishness.

Instead, some center-left U.S. pundits have bizarrely advocated stoking tensions with China as a way of pushing for more progressive policy at home. As Axios’s Jim VandeHei wrote back in 2018, “A smart politician could turn China into a unifying villain on virtually every topic—a reason to move fast and together on infrastructure, immigration, regulations, space, robotics, 5G and next-gen education.”

This logic assumes both that ginning up anti-China sentiment can lend itself to a set of broadly progressive goals, and that an essential missing link to achieving them has been the lack of a foreign antagonist. There’s reason to be skeptical on both counts. “Progressive policies are already wildly popular,” says Chow. “The problem is turning that popular support into political power. We don’t need to build more support for subsidized childcare or infrastructure investments by attacking China. Deploying these anti-China narratives is ceding long term advantage to the right. There’s a myth that we can do Great Power conflict with China without any violence or racism. This is a total illusion.”

While it’s an optimistic vision, there’s some historical reason to believe cooperation on climate could facilitate broader cooperation between the two countries. “Under Obama, climate was a conduit for talking about more difficult things. There was a shared acknowledgment that climate was a problem both countries needed to tackle. In some ways, I think it was one of the few areas where things were going quite well,” Nahm said. Cooperation between the U.S. and China was seen as a key precursor to the creation of the Paris Agreement. The total implosion of that cooperation could leave the future of that document—flawed as it is—in question. In contrast to the zero-sum competition gaining steam on both sides of the aisle, Nahm says, “The realization that everyone has strengths to contribute to this relationship would be helpful.”