Time for a plan

Months of friendly discussion between China and the west went up in smoke at Copenhagen. Qin Xuan argues that a new diplomacy is needed to avoid a repeat performance.

The most valuable lesson to be learned from the climate change conference in Copenhagen is this: the aims of global governance are unlikely to be met while the diplomatic strategies of China and emerging economies remain unsettled.

Unlike World Trade Organisation talks, the aim of climate negotiations is not only bilateral or multilateral deals between individual governments, but also direct participation in global action. The outcome of the meeting is a marker of the United Nations’ ability to handle global climate governance. But the Copenhagen talks failed to reach consensus, even on matters of principle. Some of the nations involved in the process have decisive influence, but are not yet clear on what their own targets and role in international affairs actually are.

After Copenhagen, opinion in the European Union and United States quickly turned against China. A report by British journalist Mark Lynas in the Guardian newspaper claiming China had wrecked the conference and a similar article by UK climate change secretary Ed Miliband caused an outcry in China. In response to these international misgivings, the country’s official news agency Xinhua published the inside story of premier Wen Jiabao’s experiences during his 60 hours at the conference.

To understand the fierce response from China, we need to look back at the diplomatic programme the country engaged in with both the United States and European Union in the year-long run-up to Copenhagen. A strong basis of trust appeared to have been built up with both America and Europe through diplomatic activity under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA) and the National People’s Congress. This makes the problems at Copenhagen all the more surprising.

At the start of 2009, during the early days of president Barack Obama’s administration, US think-tanks the Brookings Institution and the Asia Society proposed a “Group of Two” (G2) relationship between China and the United States. The G2 framework would operate outside of the United Nations; the two countries would establish standards, which would subsequently be widened to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), then the European Union and, finally, other developing nations.

Hillary Clinton visited China to lobby for closer cooperation between the two countries, and the State Council became the channel for establishing a new relationship between the White House and China. The G2 idea was not embraced but China and the United States did engage in cooperative discussion on energy and the environment. Some academics privately say they believe China hopes to use such partnerships with the United States to win support for adjustments to China’s economic and energy structure.

US climate change envoy Todd Stern paid a number of visits to China in 2009. In May, speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi also paid a rare visit to China, and several months later Wu Bangguo, head of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, visited the United States and met with representatives of the Senate energy panel.

While China was talking to the United States, it was also engaging in brisk diplomacy with the United Kingdom and European Union. Former British prime minister Tony Blair paid a number of visits to China at the invitation of the CPIFA, witnessing the efforts being made to reduce emissions in undeveloped regions such as Guizhou in the south-west and Ningxia in the north. Blair’s comments on his return, combined with Ed Miliband’s optimistic predictions on China’s stance in the run-up to Copenhagen, give us reason to believe that the European Union was, at least prior to the release of emissions targets, supportive of China’s efforts.

China’s diplomacy with the other countries in the “BASIC” group – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – is also worthy of note. Over the space of more than a year, these four nations have met after every set of climate change negotiations in a bid to maintain a consensus.

So what happened at Copenhagen? A Xinhua article published on December 25th asserts that Wen was excluded from various “clandestine negotiations”, including a meeting of several countries’ leaders held by the United States after dinner on the 17th, which “triggered strong discontent”.

Wen did not attend the meetings of national leaders on the morning or afternoon of December 18. In the morning, vice minister of foreign affairs, He Yafei, attended in his place. And, after a meeting with US president Obama at noon, Yu Qingtai – deputy head of the delegation and a lower level official – took part in the discussions. This provoked speculation and debate and the content of the Xinhua article explains why China was unhappy with closed-door meetings. But, if the article is accurate, it may be worth asking why trust between China and the United States and European Union was so weak that they were unable to work together after a full year of discussion.

During the first week of the conference, the Group of 77 (G77), a loose coalition of 130 developing countries, including China, reached a consensus over three evenings of talks – something rarely seen in recent years. The value of maintaining that consensus lay in upholding the principle of a two-track negotiation system, stressing the classification of nations as developing or developed and finding a new agreement based on “common but differentiated responsibilities”. If lines had instead been drawn between major economic groups and poor nations, the game would have become one played between the Group of 20 (G20) major economies and certain developing nations – and the logical result of that would have been, at the very least, some changes to the two-track system.

But, at the end of the conference, a split appeared between the least developed nations and the major developing economies of the G77 – to an extent this was inevitable given the shifting global order. This change in alignments most affects the BASIC nations, because they are both members of the G20 and developing nations. If the principle is accepted that major economies should take on bigger duties in regard to cutting carbon emissions, there will then be no difference between the BASIC group and developed countries.

I returned from Copenhagen on the same flight as the Chinese delegation. Having spoken to its members, I believe the next UN climate change meeting in Mexico may help to strengthen relations between the BASIC nations, the G77 and China. But the crucial factor in this is whether or not the promised EU and US aid appears.

Zhang Haibin, a specialist in environmental diplomacy at Peking University, believes China faces a number of difficult issues in the wake of Copenhagen. First, he says, the international pressure on China is continuing to grow, and its status as a developing nation becoming less clear. China believes its emissions targets are very ambitious, but the international response to these has not been what it hoped for. China is a major emitter and an economic power; the world’s expectations are increasing, as are China’s responsibilities.

Second, developed nations are becoming more closely aligned, while developing nations are diverging. Maintaining unity within the developing world is an increasingly difficult task. Third, China finds itself at the centre stage of the international community and at the heart of the conflict. Its room for manoeuvre is shrinking and its diplomatic policies and strategies facing ever greater challenges.

Fourth, doubts have been raised over the United Nations’ role in nuclear non-proliferation, global finance and climate change – a major challenge to China’s multilateral diplomacy.

Solving these issues will mean changes to China’s diplomatic strategy. These changes will be determined by two factors. At the international level, China needs to adjust its stance in step with other interest groups – and Copenhagen may promote this. Domestically, China’s leaders need to analyse and coordinate different interests in order to further stabilise domestic policy.

Ultimately, I believe that China should form a twenty-first-century diplomatic strategy to deal with climate change. At the core of this strategy will be this question: what costs is China willing to bear to meet regional and global diplomatic responsibilities?

Until those strategic changes have been made, it is hard to imagine there will be any progress in climate-change negotiations.

Qin Xuan is a reporter at
Southern Metropolis Daily.

Homepage image from the White House