Road to rapprochement

By joining together to fight climate change, the United States and China have a historic opportunity to lead a global strategic transformation. Banning Garrett and Jonathan Adams introduce a new report.

In a new report released by the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a group of more than 50 experts on China, politics and business aim to provide Barack Obama’s new US administration with a policy roadmap for cooperation with China. Common Challenge, Collaborative Response: A Roadmap for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change was produced by the Initiative for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Task Force, co-chaired by John L Thornton, professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and by Steven Chu, prior to his nomination as US secretary of energy. Here, Banning Garrett and Jonathan Adams introduce the report. The full document can be downloaded in both languages here.

Nearly four decades ago, the 1971-72 US-China rapprochement led to the most far-reaching strategic transformation of the international economic, political and security order since the extraordinary set of relationships and institutions that had been established in the aftermath of World War II. Today, the United States and China have a historic opportunity to once again catalyse a strategic transformation, this time to a global low-carbon, sustainable economy to effectively mitigate the chances of catastrophic climate change while increasing global prosperity. American and Chinese leadership is critical since the two countries are the biggest developed and developing countries, the biggest consumers of energy and the biggest producers of greenhouse-gas emissions.  If the US and China do not lead this generations-long effort, it is unlikely that it will occur at all – or at least not on a timetable that will achieve the global greenhouse-gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent cataclysmic climate change. 

This challenge for the US, China and the rest of the world comes at a time not only of increasing threats from global warming, but also the most severe global economic crisis since the Great Depression. The economic meltdown has an immediate and daily-worsening impact while the climate-change crisis is more invisible and slow-developing – although with potentially more disastrous and long-lasting consequences. Political leaders are under great pressure to focus their attention on halting and reversing the economic death spiral that began with the global financial crisis last autumn. Failure to address global warming as part of the economic recovery effort, however, could greatly increase the long-term costs of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and the impacts of climate change. The planned stimulus packages by the United States and China promise vast increases in government resources and directed investment, which offer great potential – if properly directed – to accelerate transition to a global low-carbon economy while pulling the world out of recession. 

To establish their new strategic relationship in the early 1970s, China and the United States overcame more than 20 years of mutual isolation, ideological rivalry, and intense hostility, including fighting a hot war in Korea from 1950 to 1953, a near-conflict over Taiwan in the late 1950s, and a proxy war in Vietnam in the 1960s. While the shared objective of the US-China rapprochement was the containment and strategic isolation of the Soviet Union, the ultimate, long-term effect was to spur the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union and its eastern European empire, thereby ending the Cold War and creating one integrated world economy. The US-China rapprochement also created the international conditions for China’s successful opening to the outside and its economic reform, leading to the extraordinary reemergence of China – and the acceleration of the process of globalisation.  

The US-China rapprochement of the early 1970s was based on strategic calculations and decisions by the top leaders in both countries to deal with the common strategic challenge posed by the Soviet Union. These decisions set in motion a process that led to far more massive international change than a reconfiguration of big-power relations to counterbalance rising Soviet power. The decisions at the top in the two countries unleashed a largely bottom-up process that involved daily decisions and actions of hundreds of millions of people in China and around the world, which transformed the global strategic fabric and created the increasingly interconnected, globalised world we have today.

Now, a shared strategic threat is posed by not by an external enemy but by our own efforts to achieve economic development and prosperity. The climate-change threat is more slow-moving and diffuse than the nuclear threat hanging over the Cold War, but the long-term danger to civilization may be no less existential. The response to this new strategic threat must begin like the US-China rapprochement in the 1970s, with initial decisions by the top leadership of the two nations that set in motion a long-term process that would prove to be even more transformative perhaps than initially envisioned. Similarly, key strategic decisions and concerted efforts to establish the necessary conditions for a transformation of the US and Chinese economies could unleash the creativity, resourcefulness, competitiveness and determination of millions of people and businesses to speed the world’s transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy. 

A new opportunity has emerged in both countries. US president Barack Obama has stated that mitigating climate change will be a high priority for his administration, which is committed to 80% reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. His stimulus plan includes commitment of massive resources for building a new clean energy infrastructure, greater efforts to enhance energy efficiency, and new steps to move away from dependence on fossil fuels. Although China is not yet willing to commit to emissions reduction targets, Chinese leaders have a similar perspective on the climate-change threat and the need for transition to a low-carbon economy. They are also planning to devote stimulus resources to energy efficiency, green technologies and other efforts to build a low-carbon energy infrastructure. 

It is essential that both the Obama administration and the Chinese leadership engage at the highest levels to begin a new programme of significantly scaled-up cooperation on energy and climate change as soon as possible. Successful US-China cooperation on energy and climate security will substantially enhance prospects for a new international climate agreement as well as bolstering political support in each country for climate change mitigation policies. It will also build mutual trust between the United States and China, strengthen the US-China partnership for tackling a wide range of common strategic challenges in the twenty-first century, and be a constructive force in US-China relations at a point in time when the American public is increasingly sceptical of the benefits of bilateral economic integration. 

Banning Garrett is director of the Initiative for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate

Jonathan Adams is assistant director of the Initiative for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate

Homepage photo from White House Photo Office/ Richard Nixon Library.

President Richard Nixon at the Great Wall, February 24, 1972.