Can China and the US Cooperate on Climate Change? – The Diplomat

At last year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow, the signing of a rushed joint China-US action plan surprised observers. In an equally surprising encore, the two major powers’ “double action” during an EU-US sponsored ministerial meeting at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh has been nothing less than a welcome sign for observers and diplomats alike.

In the wake of the Biden-Xi presidential meeting in Bali, China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, made an unannounced appearance with his US counterpart, John Kerry, at an event dedicated to reducing methane emissions. Xie’s signal of support for the methane pledge, which China has yet to sign, was a clear confirmation of the resumption of official engagements between China and the US on all things climate – cooperation that came to an abrupt end in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, visits Taiwan.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the resumption of official negotiations can produce tangible results or translate into concrete, actionable plans. It is particularly timely to question whether Beijing and Washington can work together to develop the technologies, as well as the regulatory framework, that are seen as critical to mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing global dependence on fossil fuels.

The short answer, unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, is no. Despite their purported agreement to isolate the climate dossier from the broader and highly contested context of their bilateral relations, their status as technological rivals, combined with the importance of technological supremacy for power projection capabilities, will seriously hinder the prospect of a joint Sino-US approach to climate change.

Geopolitics of climate change and technological innovation

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The geopolitics of climate change, or more precisely the geopolitical side effects of a changing climate, can be discussed from three different angles.

First is the overarching issue of food and resource security and the prospect of some nations converting their domestic food production capacity into an instrument of power.

Second, it is also possible to discuss climate change as a threat multiplier. For example, in places where socio-political tensions are already high or where regulatory frameworks regarding extractive activities are ambiguous, climate change may further exacerbate tensions.

The third strategic effect of climate change is associated with its unequal impact both among and within nations, whereby winners and losers are likely to develop conflicting perspectives on both reversing or consolidating the effects of climate change.

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The geopolitics of technology and technological innovation, on the other hand, can be explored from two perspectives: a system-level perspective that views technological innovation as a power booster, and a post-modern or critical lens that highlights how states exercise power, and exercise influence via standardization and/or agenda setting.

Regarding the former, suffice it to say that modern diplomacy and warfare are only possible thanks to the technological advances of the recent past. Whether it is shuttle diplomacy, digital diplomacy, remote-controlled drones or the use of virtual reality as a more cost-effective alternative to traditional training regiments for pilots, it is indisputable that the conduct of both war and diplomacy is directly linked to technological progress. What stands out in this context is that there is a strong technological element in any nation’s ability to project power and defend its vital national security interests. As Mark Leonard has put it, “power and influence are articulated at the intersection of technology and geopolitics.”

With regard to the latter, it is a widely accepted observation that whoever sets the standards will rule. More precisely, one can exercise significant influence if rules of conduct or parameters of responsible behavior are based on or rooted in its norms and values. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the US has been alarmed by China’s more hands-on approach to agenda-setting practices in international forums or the rapid expansion of Chinese technology companies into other markets. Washington worries that the more Chinese technological products are used around the globe, the easier it will be for China to export its values ​​and dictate the rules of the game.

Nexus of technological cooperation and environmental cooperation

To realize the connection between technology and climate change, one need look no further than Beijing and Washington’s own action plans to tackle and manage the negative effects of environmental degradation and a rapidly warming planet. Both countries have attached strategic importance to technological innovation and the upskilling of their labor markets in their fight against the looming climate crisis and their push towards the creation of green economies.

Strategic technologies that are considered essential to address and mitigate the effects of climate change can be divided into two groups. At one end of the spectrum are the technologies that can utilize so-called clean energy sources such as plants, geothermal heat or the sun. On the other end are technologies that are essential to the energy industry because they can make traditional forms of energy not just cleaner, but also more efficient. Examples of this include coal gasification, carbon capture and storage and integrated combined cycle gasification technology (IGCC).

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In addition, there are technologies that are located between the two groups mentioned above. One group includes technologies that are needed to both green material production processes and increase materials life cycle and efficiency. The second group includes space-related technologies and artificial intelligence. The effects of climate change can be understood more comprehensively as states develop the capabilities to process larger sets of satellite data more frequently. Doing so requires advances in satellite technologies as well as machine learning so that more data can be processed in a significantly shorter time frame.

Is cooperation possible?

From a global good perspective, China and the US must put aside their strategic differences and seek to maximize cooperation on climate change. This is because the climate crisis is a global threat and that handling it therefore requires a global effort. The problem today, however, is that the strategic priorities of China and the United States do not align. Despite their shared identification of climate change as an urgent national and global security threat, their national interests in outdoing each other for global supremacy make it difficult for the two to work hand in hand to solve the climate crisis.

Although the prospect of an all-out war between the US and China remains marginal, it is nonetheless abundantly clear that the two are locked in a technological cold war, as evidenced by their aggressive decoupling efforts. Driven by what Alex Capri has described as technonationalism, Chinese and American behavior is best described as “mercantilist”. This view ties a nation’s national security, economic competitiveness and socio-political stability to technological progress.

Buoyed by its impressive economic growth, China is now seeking recognition for its model of government, claiming it outperforms Western liberal democracy on a number of key indicators. The United States, for its part, is determined to withhold such recognition. While Chinese diplomats therefore trumpet the virtues of their model and woo developing countries to follow the Chinese path, US officials try to counter these efforts by highlighting the normative shortcomings of the Chinese model, such as a lack of respect for human rights and individual privacy.

This rivalry should come as no surprise. After all, leadership and sustained innovation in the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will surely yield critical economic, political, and military power. This is why both countries have committed large sums of capital to fund R&D on such technologies and in the process have developed a zero-sum view of each other’s progress, taking gains by China as losses for the US and vice versa. vise versa. This trend was most clearly shown at the confirmation hearing for Lloyd Austin, Biden’s secretary of defense. Austin said he would maintain a “laser-like focus” on sharpening America’s “competitive advantage” against China’s increasingly powerful military and described Beijing as “the most significant threat going forward” to the United States.

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What makes strategic division highly unlikely, however, is the fact that the technological competition between China and the US is not limited to the innovation race alone. Rather, it involves a fierce and rapidly intensifying rivalry over the establishment of regulatory frameworks for the development and management of new technologies, which pits two completely different value systems against each other. One can see a clear manifestation of this normative competition in China’s Global Initiative on Data Security as well as its recently updated Personal Information Protection Law, which aims to counter the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, and the US proposal to establish a G. -7 The AI ​​Pact as well as its revitalization of the Wassenaar Arrangement.


Throughout history, nations have sought technological superiority to strategically outmaneuver their rivals and exert power and influence beyond their immediate borders. Therefore, the current technological dispute between China and the United States should not be surprising. Their failure to co-invent the technologies deemed essential to combating climate change, and to cooperate in scaling up such technologies, should not be either. Technological know-how and technology transfer are seen as instruments of leverage and influence that China and the US could use to tilt other states into their own spheres of influence. This trend could lead to further division and an unfortunate return of Cold War mentality to global politics.

More generally, the two superpowers are unlikely to be able to separate climate change from the larger strategic context of their bilateral relations simply because the value distance between their governance models has widened as the power gap between them has narrowed . Indeed, China made that clear on the eve of Kerry’s trip to Tianjin last year, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected the idea of ​​splitting climate from other policy issues.

Technological cooperation to tackle climate change would only become possible if Beijing and Washington manage to establish a high-level committee to regulate their technological rivalry; that is, to set the ground rules to ultimately reach a consensus that neither will attempt to inflict a high-tech attack on the other. As long as this alignment is missing, the prospect of their technological cooperation on other fronts, including climate change, will remain illusory.


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