Green challenges in China-US relations

China and the US have much in common and much to argue about. But, says Yu Hongyuan, the two economic giants are central to global efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, and need to cooperate.

Global environmental threats to China and the United States are like those to the rest of the planet. The two countries are among the world’s largest and most influential, and both are experiencing widespread, acute environmental problems with severe local, national and regional consequences. As such, China and the US are central to regional and global environmental protection efforts. They share the same global environment and interest in preserving it for this and future generations. Environmental diplomacy has become more salient as environmental issues have gained importance in international relations.

The rise of environmental politics and security

Nowadays, environmental issues — mainly global warming, ozone-layer depletion, acid rain, air and water pollution, desertification and the loss of biodiversity — have caught the attention of the human race. The global environment has changed beyond recognition and poses a great challenge everywhere. Moreover, environmental issues have moved from the margin to the center of security policies, particularly since the end of the cold war.

On one hand, environmental problems have been recognised over the last several decades as an important source of threats to human survival. The human impact on the environment in a modern society is 10 to 100 times greater than it was in an agrarian society. On the other hand, it is now universally acknowledged that international environmental cooperation is necessary. Environmental cooperation is a political and social concern as well as an economic one. It involves various sectors the national economy and so has an important bearing on the sustainable economic and social development of all countries. The need for access to natural resources has increased and more people are making greater demands upon those resources. The loss of balance between human activities and preservation of nature in many parts of the world is attributed to a growth-oriented economic model.

Because environmental degradation can deepen social divisions and lead to violent conflicts, the environment is now considered to be a significant security issue. Environmental security is affected by a variety of activities created at different levels of a social system. Transboundary air pollution and insufficient water resources, for example, can threaten human lives. Thus, in a broad notion of national security, environmental issues are also linked to the causes of violent conflicts which prompt outside military intervention.

However, for a long time the traditional focus of national security and international conflict has had little in common with either environmental problems or solutions. Traditional security is still fundamentally linked to the state system, in which there is a refusal to accept environmental degradation as a national-security threat. Now, however, environmental concerns have been brought into security studies, along with changes in the perception of security, in policy-making circles.

Environmental policy in China and the US

While it has contributed to global economic growth, China has simultaneously taken on the unenviable role of being potentially the largest polluter in the world. Environmental protection has caught more and more attention among Chinese leaders since the 1980s. In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, then-premier Li Peng of China noted that environmental challenges were threatening the security of countries and regions. He signed Agenda 21 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Since then, environmental foreign policy has been implicated in the concerns and agenda-setting of Chinese national interests and foreign policy. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Earth Summit 2002, or Rio+10) held in Johannesburg, South Africa, then-premier Zhu Rongji emphasised harmony between economic development and environmental protection, adhering to the road to human-oriented development. Zhu also declared then that China had ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

Currently, China’s participation in international environmental institutions and processes has increased noticeably. The country has signed on to a wide range of treaties and declarations, and has developed extensive linkages with scientific and environmental policy communities around the world. It also has hosted a variety of international conferences and workshops on the environment.

The guiding principles of China’s formal environmental diplomacy include, according to Elizabeth Economy in “China’s International Environmental Diplomacy,” published in China and the World [Samuel S. Kim, editor; 4th edition, Westview 1999]:

“(1) Environment and development should be integrated, but environmental protection should not be achieved at the expense of the economy. Environmental protection can only be effective when development has been attained. (2) From a historical perspective, the developed countries are responsible for global environmental degradation and the current problems with greenhouse gas emissions. China should not talk about responsibility. (3) Developed countries should provide resources for implementation of agreements or declarations signed. This financial resource should not be considered assistance but compensation from the developed countries. (4) Developed countries should find suitable mechanisms to develop sustainable programs. In order to accommodate national intellectual property rights, the governments of the developed countries should buy the technology from the companies and sell it to developing nations at below market prices. (5) The sovereignty of natural resources rights must be respected. No country can interfere with the decisions of another with regard to the use of the natural resources.”

China faces the crucial need to protect its national interests and promote development while joining in the environmental cooperation. There is a dilemma here for China.

When China pursues its own interests, its immediate goal – economic development – will be served in the short run. In the long run, however, its moral reputation will be damaged and the country will lose environmental loans and technology transfers.

And when China pursues collective international environmental-protection interests, this may provide – in the short run — a basis for possible future collaboration in reducing environmental disasters. In the long run, it serves the long-term common interests of humanity.

The dilemma reflects two trends in China’s foreign policy on international environmental cooperation. One is the nationalistic trend; the other is the internationalist one. The nationalistic trend may undermine global endeavours, while the internationalist one can help China contribute more to the global environment.

The United States has been proactive in most areas of environmental protection, and has sought an international role and reputation. According to the US State Department, the government focuses its regional and bilateral environmental diplomacy on five key environmental challenges which affect most, if not all, areas of the world: water resources, air quality, energy resources, land use, and urban and industrial growth, and the US also integrates environmental issues into its diplomacy in two new ways: by establishing regional environmental hubs in key embassies to work on transboundary solutions to regional environmental problems, and by raising the profile of environmental issues in many of our bilateral relationships.

Cooperation between the two powers

During the Clinton administration, China-US environmental relations went very well. According to former president Bill Clinton, “China and the United States share the same global environment, an interest in preserving it for this and future generations.” His vice president, Al Gore, showed great interest in China-US environmental cooperation, and announced an initiative that moved both countries toward greater cooperation in energy and environmental science, technology and trade.

China and the US signed many statements and declarations on in-depth cooperation on a range of efforts to protect the environment and promote sustainable development, including international efforts to combat global climate change. However, after 2001, the Bush administration has put a lower priority on environmental issues in its China-US relations.

In international struggles against global warming, the State Department argues: “China’s demand for energy will triple by 2010. It could surpass the United States as the largest consumer of energy by 2020. China’s reliance on coal for its energy needs results in high levels of sulfur emissions which cause acid rain in China and in other countries in the region. ”

The US is working with China through a bilateral forum launched by top government leaders. Through this forum, which will address a wide range of environmental issues, the State Department and other US agencies are working to address the social, economic and environmental challenges posed by China’s energy needs and to find opportunities to apply new US technology in addressing these critical problems. Also, the US is helping China to inventory its emissions of greenhouse gases and upgrade its inefficient pulverised coal power to a more economic and environmentally sound system.

Divergence between China and the US

Firstly, China sides with the developing countries, and represents their interests in international environmental negotiations. However, the US acts as the leader of developed countries. “Group of 77 (G-77) plus China” is the main mechanism by which China tries to exert its influence in climate-change regimes. China created terms like “environmental colonialism” and “sovereignty intervention” to resist the US and protect the developing countries’ “common but differential responsibilities” in international environmental cooperation.

Secondly, due to differences between China and the US in their economic development levels as well as in their political objectives, there is a serious divergence of opinion on responsibilities in international environmental cooperation. China is deeply dissatisfied with the US because it refuses to pay necessary regard to China’s economic and technological backwardness and urges China to share the same environmental standards and responsibilities. Moreover, China is critical of the fact that the US still fell well short of the goal that the international community requires, contributing less than 0.2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to development assistance. The US argues that China should take more responsibility, because the fastest growth in transboundary pollution in recent years has been in China.

Thirdly, there are conflicts between China and the US in international struggles against global warming. As the biggest developing country, China is confronted by both a huge challenge and a large risk in environmental cooperation with the US on this matter. Today, the threat of climate change has become a very serious environmental security issue. Rapid economic growth in China has been and will be associated with rapid increases in fossil-fuel use, the primary source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

As a developing country, China is seeking to industrialise and modernise.

Chinese importance to the world in GHG emissions increases along with its share of the GDP, and primary energy consumption and carbon emissions also increase dramatically. The US urges China to assume substantial responsibility for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, as early as it can. If not, the rapid increase of such emissions in China will counterbalance the endeavors of the international community in reducing GHG.

Therefore, the Bush administration argues that the Kyoto Protocol is unfair to the United States and to other industrialised nations because it exempts 80% of the world from compliance — particularly China. China argues that the US is home to 4% of the world’s population but produces 25% of its greenhouse gases. So the US should share major responsibilities first.

Finally, China has become a potentially great power due to its national strength and comparative development. The US wonders if the rising China will pose a “threat” to it, so it manages to uglify China with pictures of the country’s huge transboundary pollution and contribution to global warming.

The author: Yu Hongyuan is an associate professor and deputy director of the Department of International Organisations and Laws at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. He is also an honorary fellow of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. From 1998 to 2000, he worked with the administrative centre for China’s Agenda 21 at the ministry of science and technology. Yu Hongyuan is the author of numerous publications, including most recently “Environmental Change and the Asia Pacific”, in Global Change, Peace and Security.