While the Biden administration has sharpened America’s China policy in numerous ways, on climate cooperation it remains naively dovish. A State Department readout on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s June 18 meeting with Xi Jinping identified climate change as the top transnational challenge “the United States and China should work together to address.”
Blinken’s overture follows a lengthy April speech by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen highlighting the two countries’ supposed climate alignment. “Moments of climate cooperation between the United States and China,” Yellen claimed, “have made global breakthroughs possible, including the Paris Agreement.” Yet the asymmetries of that deal reveal that China and the U.S. are pursuing distinct agendas. For U.S. Democrats, climate policy is an exercise in environmental atonement; for the Chinese Communist Party, climate policy is part of a struggle for geopolitical primacy.
In the U.S., the preferred method for measuring climate progress is emissions reductions. The Obama administration committed the U.S. to cutting greenhouse gas output 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 in its Paris pledge. President Biden has tightened the goal to 50 percent by 2030. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled an electricity plan requiring most fossil-fuel power plants to eliminate 90 percent of their emissions by 2040. The U.S. has cut emissions 17 percent since 2005.
China, emitting more than double the U.S. total, has not shown the same inclination to make hard choices. Its Paris pledge allows the nation to emit more greenhouse gas annually until 2030, at which point it promises to reduce emissions at no specified pace, and to procure 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources. The non-fossil energy plank has convinced American environmentalists of China’s climate leadership and the Biden administration of its good faith. But if China has surged its output of electric vehicles, batteries, and renewable energy, it has done so to reduce not emissions but trade dependencies.
Unlike the U.S., China is a vulnerable oil and natural-gas importer, relying for most of its supply on maritime routes from the Persian Gulf. To mitigate that risk, China has pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. Consider its ongoing oil and gas expansionism in the South China Sea, or a January announcement from the national electricity council that, on top of the 40 gigawatts of coal and gas capacity it built in 2022, it would add 70 more gigawatts of capacity this year. China’s non-fossil energy projects are designed to boost energy security.
But China does care about emissions—America’s, that is. In a 2022 statement to the United Nations, Wang Yi, now China’s top diplomat, stressed “differentiated responsibilities” on climate change, calling for “developed countries” not only to uphold their pledged cuts, but also to “provide financial, technological and capacity-building support for developing countries.” Put another way, China wants to enrich its economy, while the United States, Europe, and Japan, which have already had their moments in the sun, restrict their own.
Though China has adopted the genteel language of development economics in its climate messages to global audiences, in its internal discourse it has rehabilitated the Maoist concept of douzheng ( 斗争)—struggle. Its enduring geopolitical goal is to unseat the United States from its hegemonic position. The Economist noted 22 appearances of the term in Xi’s October address to the 20th Party Congress. In March, it featured prominently again in his speech to the National People’s Congress. As Asia Society director Orville Schell puts it, “Xi believes that China is in a fundamentally hostile political relationship with the US and the West.”
Climate policy is not the principal channel through which China wages this struggle. Still, it is an important component of a comprehensive strategy to undermine America and achieve primacy. Where the White House sees an opportunity for cooperation, Zhongnanhai sees a chance to press its advantage. Climate cooperation is a diplomatic trap; the U.S. should not fall into it.
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