China’s export of its Covid-19 vaccine has proved to be a powerful arrow in its soft power quiver. Through the philanthropic delivery of vaccines worldwide, particularly to lower-income countries, Beijing has been able to build goodwill and cast itself as savior rather than villain in the pandemic. Now, Beijing is focusing on another issue to try to burnish its international image and bolster its soft power: climate change.
In a series of meetings and statements, President Xi Jinping has attempted to demonstrate that Beijing is serious about the issue of climate change and measures to limit its effects. At President Joe Biden’s Earth Day summit on April 22, Xi pledged to “strictly control coal-fired power generation plants” and noted the strategy outlined in China’s 14th five-year plan to limit growth in coal consumption. He also reiterated his promise from last year for China to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
But the US-led summit was only the latest in a series of meetings Xi held with world leaders that emphasized Beijing’s focus on climate change. Two days previously, Xi held a call with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman where he “stressed climate change” and included Chinese support for “Saudi Arabia’s proposals and measures on promoting global climate governance.”
The week before, Xi held a summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. The three leaders agreed to work more closely on climate change, while Xi announced that China would accept a 2016 global deal to phase out the greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons. (About a week later, China and Germany also agreed to step up cooperation on climate change.)
At the trilateral meeting, the Chinese readout also noted that the issue should “not become a geopolitical bargaining chip.” Yet, it is clear that Beijing’s renewed enthusiasm for climate change policy is driven not just by a concern for the environment, but also a desire to utilize the issue in its diplomatic overtures.
From the outset, the Biden administration has emphasized that its policy toward China would largely be in line with that of the Trump administration, viewing the relationship as one defined by strategic competition. But the administration has also highlighted that it would seek to cooperate with China where feasible and necessary, particularly on transnational issues that require a collective response.
Climate change has been the obvious policy area where collaboration was most likely: the appointment of John Kerry as US special envoy for climate underlined the importance of the issue for the administration and the focus that would be placed on international climate negotiations.
Thus, there is an opportunity for Beijing to instrumentalize the climate change issue to help build bridges to the US, and prevent a relatively benign international environment that has aided China’s rise from becoming too hostile.
Similarly, an emphasis on climate in Beijing’s diplomacy allows it to polish its international image more broadly. What better issue to underline China’s magnanimity and responsibility than tackling climate change? It also demonstrates to the wider international community that China is willing to make sacrifices and work toward a common good, creating goodwill and leverage among nations, particularly in Asia and Europe, that have grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s otherwise brusque diplomatic style in recent years.
Climate change effectively softens China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, which has seen diplomats forcefully and sometimes rudely defend China’s image and interests in the public discourse.
The concern over climate change now is a long way from China’s view on the issue just 10 years ago. Worried about restrictions on its growth, Beijing acted as a spoiler to reaching meaningful agreement at the 2009 COP-15 climate talks in Copenhagen.
Since then, China has become increasingly activist in climate change policy. Part of this is owing to rising concerns domestically about the topic. Environmental issues have become of greater importance in China over the course of its breakneck development period since the late 1970s. Five of the 20 goals listed in the 14th five-year plan are focused on environmental issues. Given public dissent over matters such as air pollution, a dedication to climate change policy helps mollify both a domestic and international audience.
Further, Beijing now sees economic benefit to investing in climate-friendly industries, such as renewable energy. China has effectively captured the global solar market through aggressive mercantilism, and other high-growth industries of the future are targets for Chinese investment.
But China’s shift in climate change policy, particularly over the past six months, also appears to be driven by a desire to present a more sympathetic face to the world on an issue of crucial importance. Historic Chinese pledges to climate change policy have largely been insufficient until now to assist in keeping to the Paris Agreement goals of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
Now, Beijing appears to be strengthening its commitment to climate change just as the US is again emphasizing the issue as a climate leader and pressuring the international community to do more. There are no doubt useful diplomatic benefits for China in this process. But whether Beijing keeps to its pledges, or maintains its commitment if the US administration changes in four years’ time, is still to be seen.
Christian Le Miere is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London. Previously he was a senior advisor to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. @c_lemiere.