international analysis and commentary

Playing the emissions game by Chinese rules

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As so often is the case with Beijing, individual Chinese moves in foreign policy make very little sense to Western observers unless they are placed in a larger context. Nowhere is this truer than over the recent, much-ballyhooed agreement between Presidents Xi and Obama over limiting greenhouse gas emissions. On its surface, such an accord would seem to be vitally important, as by far the world’s two greatest polluters must make common cause if any sort of meaningful global treaty is to be enacted in Paris in the course of 2015.

All that is true, but also entirely beside the point from China’s point of view. As ever, the devil is in the details. First, the Obama-Xi agreement is unenforceable, with each country merely pledging to do its best to meet the terms. Second, China only promises that its overall emissions will peak in 2030 (five years after the Americans had pressed for), which will probably happen anyway without any significant dislocation proving necessary; in short, Beijing is only vaguely agreeing to something that is already likely to come to pass on its own.

In turn, Washington pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025, about a doubling of present efforts but eminently manageable. This agreement then, is better than nothing, but not by much. Even if many Western observers do not know this, the Chinese leadership certainly does. What then is Beijing playing at, signing such a toothless agreement, and then making so much of it?

The answer is simple and ominous: the Chinese know the game we are playing – trying to lock the world’s rising power into a Western-dominated series of international agreements, which constrict their freedom of maneuver even as they further important Western norms, such as dealing with the threat of global warming. The Chinese follow-up to the US-Chinese accord tells us more about how they view the world than it does about their view of the upcoming Paris talks.

In a little noticed foreign policy speech given in Beijing at the end of November 2014, President Xi Jinping came as close as he is likely to do in laying his cards on the table. He used his address to update his country’s view of the changing structure of the current multipolar world order, as well as his country’s place in it. First, he stressed that China has graduated to Great Power status, and now needs a new foreign policy that reflects that central fact. Second, the world order itself – and China’s East Asian neighborhood specifically – is in a state of profound flux, as China’s relative power grows while Washington’s recedes. Third, Xi wants to reassure his skittish neighbors that this amounts to a positive development, both for China and for the other countries of the region.

Politely, quietly, and soothingly, this amounts to President Xi declaring that the foreign policy tradition laid down by former leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s is no longer fit for this new era, as global power realities have fundamentally moved on. China need no longer mask its interests, as Deng advised, waiting for the day its rocketing growth rates would allow it to play a much more pronounced role on the international stage. For Xi, that day has now arrived. China’s power is merely a fact of life in the new international order, and one in which both his neighbors, putative American rival, and the West in general had better get used to.

But if Xi’s more assertive foreign policy – due to the structural change in the global balance of power that multipolarity has wrought – represents a departure from Deng’s more subtle strategy, that does not mean that Xi advocates removing nuance from the Chinese toolkit; far from it. In fact, as China continues to rise, soothing Deng-style gambits make far more sense as the way forward, to cloak China’s newfound power as well as its efforts to see that Western-imposed, supposedly international norms do not turn into Lilliputians tying the Chinese Gulliver up.

Which brings us back to the global warming debate of the past few months. Rather than continuing to be seen as the bad guy, a nefarious power that on its own stood in the way of a comprehensive deal in 2015, Xi adopted more Machiavellian tactics. Since there can be no global warming deal without broad American-Chinese agreement over emissions, Xi got President Obama to sign a bilateral deal wherein China has to do almost nothing, and Washington has to do just a little bit more. Which suits both parties just fine.

Secondly, the December 14, 2014 Lima “agreement” – the last major stepping stone on the way to Paris – was also much ado about nothing. Environmental groups were right to smell a rat, as the more one looks at this accord, the less it appears to be. Even Peru’s Environment Minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who chaired the summit, conceded, “As a text, it’s not perfect, but it includes the positions of the parties.”

In essence, the international community, nowhere near agreement over the central issue of national emissions pledges (and who pays for them), kicked the lion’s share of the problem into the long grass. First, the text was watered down, allowing countries to skirt publishing quantifiable information on how they plan to meet emissions targets. Second, the timeline was fudged, as ironclad national pledges that were to be made in the first quarter of 2015 are now to be initiated only by those states “ready to do so.”

So from Beijing’s calculating point of view, nothing substantial was agreed to and nothing given away. At the same time, and of fundamental importance, Beijing is no longer seen as the primary impediment to a global deal. Better to let the whole process fail over the weight of its own contradictions, rather than scuttle it out right and reap the blame.

Looked at in this broader context, President Xi has not capitulated to long-standing Western concerns about Beijing’s obstructionist position over global warming; rather he has evaded playing by the West’s rules all the while America and its allies laud him for his newfound “flexibility.” If Western analysis does not come to understand China (and quickly), we may all soon discover we are playing a very different game from the one we thought we were, one where the instructions are written in Chinese.