This week will see the first meeting of senior Biden Administration officials with their Chinese counterparts. This follows hot on the heels of President Biden’s historic Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving his counterparts from Australia, Japan and India. Both serve as important reminders that for the Biden administration, a successful China strategy will require a sophisticated integration of accountability and cooperation that will be difficult, but by no means impossible for two teams with unprecedented bilateral experience.
The Trump administration’s self-declared and sporadic trade war against China provides the perfect example for how not to do this. While bellicose and xenophobic rhetoric combined with huge cash payments to Iowa farmers may have played well to Trump’s base, his chaotic and zero-sum approach backfired. The U.S. trade deficit was increased, economic growth was slowed, American families paid an average cost of $1,277 per year, and the U.S.-China Business Council estimates it came at the expense of up to 245,000 American jobs. His approach also shattered the united front the U.S. had presented with the European Union on key areas of dispute with China, including human rights and data privacy.
This does not mean that the Trump administration’s overall impulse to renegotiate the relationship with Beijing was wrong. The reality is that strategic competition between China and and the U.S. in the years to come will include national security, currency, trade, technology, data privacy, and human rights. This does not, however, preclude cooperation in defined areas necessitated by either country’s national interests.
Perhaps there is no challenge that provides a greater need or greater opportunity for strategic cooperation than tackling climate change. The good news is that according to a new poll by the Asia Society Policy Institute and Data for Progress, the American people clearly understand their country can balance both competition and cooperation when it comes to climate. Americans recognize such an approach is of benefit to their own country and ultimately the planet. In fact, they see engagement between the two countries on climate change as second only to nuclear disarmament on priorities for the two nations to work on together.
With much talk of unity in Washington, it is worth noting that Republican voters are more likely to support increased cooperation with China when they are confronted with the possibility of the U.S. losing the benefits of innovation and trade that stem from bilateral engagement on climate. As green jobs emerge as a major source of employment in some of the hardest hit parts of the U.S., support for agreements with China and others to protect and grow these industries is vital.
The Biden administration has so far demonstrated that it can walk and chew gum at the same time on China. This is why Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry’s call in January to manage climate change as a “standalone issue” in the U.S.-China relationship was smart. While Beijing’s initial response through their foreign ministry spokesperson was to dismiss the idea, it is significant that within a week they had changed their language.
The appointment in February of Xie Zhenhua, China’s leading authority on climate change action, as Kerry’s counterpart, also bodes well for the prospects of substantive cooperation. China has worked out that it is in its own national interests to reach carbon neutrality – otherwise China’s own environmental and economic future will be imperiled. For China, however, the question is how quickly they can do this. Right now, their short-term actions do not match their long-term vision.
Rising sea levels are a threat to several Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The shrinking of Himalayan glaciers would also cause glacial lakes to overflow, causing widespread flooding. This run off could also decrease the downstream volumes of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, leading to desertification.
According to the polling data, support for Biden’s ambitious climate agenda is at its highest when China is seen to be doing more. For example, more than two-thirds of American voters support bolder climate reforms at home if China is making similar domestic commitments. Second, a majority of Americans understand that working together with China on the development of clean energy technologies can actually help the U.S. In fact, the data demonstrates the American people support a partnership in this sector of the economy more than any other.
The challenge and the opportunity for the Biden administration is therefore to forge a race to the top with China on climate action that is both collaborative and competitive. Managing this contemporaneously with areas of deeper disagreement will not be easy. But the reality is that the race to solve climate change is one that brings the two nations, and the rest of the world, into a common planetary cause. The fact the climate envoys from both great powers know each other well and have deep experience in the field makes it just possible for these various needles to be thread.
Biden has a great opportunity to elevate his “Build Back Better” narrative into a global framework with a commitment to a “New Green Marshall Plan”. More than three-quarters of American voters polled want China to do more, which must include reductions of coal fired power at home and within the Belt and Road Initiative. By offering alternative, green energy finance for developing countries (either through the World Bank or bilaterally), Biden can accelerate global trends towards renewable energy. It will also accelerate a reappraisal already underway in Beijing on the environmental future of the BRI. This is the kind of sophisticated approach that will be required for China to do more.
The American people have spoken in the presidential election. And this poll shows once again, Biden has a strong mandate to aim for a moonshot with China on climate change that produces not only a safer planet and cleaner air and water for all, but also millions of high-wage American jobs and lower household costs for American working families. That’s an American version of a “win-win” outcome for us all.