China has boosted climate action in the international sphere as well, launching a South-South Cooperation Fund (SSCF) and pledging $20 million to it at COP20. Another $3.1 billion was pledged to this fund in a joint statement with the White House in September 2015.
Cooperation between the US and China has been critical to international climate action. China pledged to peak its emissions by 2030 in a joint statement between President Xi Jinping and President Obama in November 2014. This commitment by the world’s two largest emitters helped to boost confidence ahead of the monumental agreement. Similar cooperation is unlikely to happen in the future, not only because of the president-elect’s denial of climate change, but also because of how hard he has rocked the boat with China before even taking office.
With all eyes on China at the 2016 UN climate negotiations in Marrakesh, it did perform some kind of dance. A Chinese delegate lobbed a public ironic jab at Trump, informing him that Reagan and Bush were actually the ones to bring climate change to the international agenda, not China. Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead negotiator, embraced with EU Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete in front of the cameras. Cañete captioned the photo on Twitter: “EU-China climate and clean energy leadership now more important than ever.” Neither country offered any concrete contributions, such as additional emissions cuts or funding, should the US pull out of the Paris Agreement.
China also hosted and widely publicized a High Level Forum on South-South Cooperation. It reiterated its commitment to the SSCF and launched another program to help developing countries meet their emissions reduction targets. China’s emphasis on South-South Cooperation shows an attempt to position itself as the leader of and still one with the developing world—an attractive alternative to donors from the West.
Will China step up to take leadership on international climate action? Certainly China’s performance at the 2016 negotiations suggests its willingness, and some analysts and journalists are cautiously optimistic. Because so many countries reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement at the Marrakesh negotiations, China stands to gain a lot of diplomatic and moral capital at America’s expense. Taking aggressive action on climate change would help China gain influence across many other issues in the international sphere.
On the other hand, as Li Shuo from Greenpeace East Asia wrote, “International leadership requires more than taking domestic action, it asks China to bring others along too.” China, with its pragmatic way of exerting power, has yet to go this extra length. It is no secret that China began aggressively pursuing renewable energies not to engage with the UNFCCC, but rather to reduce pollution within its own borders.
The SSCF, too, is not the first time China has poured huge quantities of money to the developing world. China has dispensed multibillion dollar loans and infrastructure investments all across Africa and South America as an alternative to Western aid, but none of these are without strings attached: most of these deals were made in exchange for China’s right to extract natural resources or to use Chinese construction companies to build the infrastructure. China’s “Peaceful Development” framework makes explicit that helping its ‘partners’ to develop is for the purposes of boosting China’s own national security and stability.
Looking to the East after Trump’s election feels natural, given how the balance of power has shifted from the US towards China in the 21st century. But China’s way of being a global superpower is very different from America’s way. Whether it be in international development or climate action, China is not interested in expanding power for power’s sake, or in impressing ‘Chinese values’ on the rest of the world. Diplomatic interests do not drive China—national interests do.
Gauging China’s climate leadership going forward, we must first assess whether its rhetoric on South-South cooperation and international low carbon initiatives produces any results. Before celebrating its ascendance to climate hero, we first must see whether China reduces its extractive, climate-damaging activities across the globe, rather than simply outsourcing its polluting stages of growth to other countries. China may well become the de facto climate leader now that Trump has taken office, but like every other country, its leadership will have limits. Those limits, in China’s case, will be its own tangible national interests: security, internal stability, and sustained economic growth.