Between two worlds: the paradox and promise of China’s climate diplomacy
China’s climate diplomacy cannot be fully appreciated without recognising its dual identity of both a developing country and a great power, writes Lucie Qian Xia. From standing on the side-lines of international climate negotiations to leading in the race to net-zero and climate resilience, China’s growing climate leadership is anchored in its aspiring responsible great power role. In future China’s climate diplomacy will need to effectively bridge domestic policymaking, bilateral climate cooperation and multilateral climate negotiations.
“You must live with great seriousness; living is the most real, the most beautiful thing”, wrote one of the most romantic poets, Nâzım Hikmet Ran. Humanity’s existential crisis of climate change has brought to the fore the seriousness of international climate cooperation, and the significance of one of the world’s most important actors – China’s climate diplomatic engagements.
A surface reading of China’s role in international climate governance is often imbued with a simplistic view that over-criticises China for being the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, or underestimates the pledges that China have put forward to honour the Paris Agreement, while adjudicating on whether China’s rise would elicit a responsible international actor or not; entrenched in unfounded preconceptions and prejudices, these shallow observations of China’s climate diplomacy belie the complexities of China’s identity and the ways in which it shapes China’s multifaceted climate diplomacy.
Capturing the complex nature of China’s identity is vital to comprehend where China’s climate diplomacy is headed and what China may do to navigate the era of geostrategic competition in which climate diplomacy has taken on a fresh urgency for managing the relationship between human and nature.
China’s identity paradox
It is a truth universally acknowledged: climate change is manmade; it is profoundly human and inherently contextual. In the context of China, the developments and orientations in China’s climate diplomacy are underpinned by China’s distinct dual identity: on one hand, China is the world’s largest developing country; and on the other, a rising great power with growing influence in international affairs. This duality has infused China’s climate action; addressing the climate crisis for China is both a domestic and a diplomatic matter, the two cannot be disassociated.
The United Nations, through the United Nations Development Programme, classifies countries using the Human Development Index (HDI), which is a composite measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. The HDI purports that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone. The latest figure of China’s HDI value is 0.761 for the year 2019, positioning the country at 85 out of 189 countries and territories that the UNDP’s HDI assesses; this figure classifies China as a developing country and situates China in the high human development category.
China’s identity as the world’s largest developing country pertains to the fact that a large part of the country’s population still remains vulnerable to poverty. Per the World Bank, countries can be divided into four income groupings: low, lower-middle, upper-middle, and high-income countries. Income is measured using gross national income (GNI) per capita, in U.S. dollars, converted from local currency using the World Bank Atlas method. With a per capita gross national income (GNI) in 2020 of $10,550, China is currently classified as a upper-middle-income country under the World Bank’s categorisation, which indicates that China is not immune to the traditional developmental challenges that developing countries face, and that while China’s economy is adjusting to a new low carbon growth model, it would require China to find a synthesis between economic development and environmental protection.
Negotiating the tension between the economic and the environmental informs the way China is returning front and centre on the world stage as a rising great power. China’s great power status is a nexus of economic affluence and political gravitas. China became the world’s second largest economy in 2010, and its economic prowess has spread its footprints across many sectors and realms. One expanding area is China’s considerable investment in space science and in its explorations and engagements in space diplomacy. China is the world’s third nation – after Russia and the US – to send astronauts into space in 2003, and the world’s second nation – after the US – to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars, in 2021.
China is not only a member of P5 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – with veto power on UN resolutions and decisions, but is also, unknown to many, the first country to sign the Charter of the United Nations, on 26 June 1945, at the San Francisco Conference. China was accorded “the honor of being the first to sign the UN Charter”, in recognition of China’s “long-standing fight against aggression” throughout its turbulent history. This ‘first’ undergirds China’s sense of its role in the UN and its sense of purpose and pedigree in the making of the post-1945 world order, in which inclusive multilateral rules and institutions are, contrary to common misconception, respected and valued by Beijing.
China’s climate diplomatic strategy
China’s rise to great power status does not shield it from tackling the traditional developmental challenges of a developing country, and its dual identity has and will continue to shape China’s climate diplomatic strategy, manifest in China’s delicate balancing act of increasingly shouldering responsibility of tackling climate change commensurate as a great power, and on the other hand, being a developing country, China is learning and doing at the same time.
China’s growing climate leadership diplomacy which has been consolidated over the past decade is anchored in its aspiring responsible great power role. From standing on the side-lines of international climate negotiations to leading in the race to net-zero and climate resilience, China’s climate ambition is particularly potent in China’s diplomatic efforts in enhancing climate change engagement with the European Union. Instrumental in this transformation is China’s commitment to building climate synergies with the EU.
The EU occupies a unique place in China’s climate diplomacy. An ambitious leadership aspiration underpins China and the EU’s climate diplomacies. The EU and China share similar visions in terms of honouring the Paris Agreement. The EU aims to be climate-neutral by 2050, and China has committed to reaching climate neutrality by 2060. China’s transition to a greener mode of development requires cooperation for technological development and capacity building, and learning from EU best practice. Fostering diplomatic partnerships in the name of multilateralism is one of the tenets of China’s climate diplomacy.
China’s willingness to shoulder more climate action responsibilities is conditioned by its developing country attributes, and China’s climate diplomacy also relates to China holding responsibility for the everyday life of the Chinese people, including ensuring clean air and fresh water. This aspect of China’s climate action is also embedded in China’s vision to strengthen international climate cooperation through being an effective leader of the Global South. In China’s updated National Determined Contribution (NDC) submitted to the UNFCCC in 2021, China stated that it will “continue to push for and step up cooperation to help other developing countries, including African countries, least developed countries, and small island developing states, cope with the challenges of climate change. China will explore more effective use of the China South-South Climate Cooperation Fund to help others developing countries respond to climate change”. This vision is manifest in China’s strategic alliance with the G77 as a large negotiating bloc of all developing countries in the UNFCCC negotiations.
China’s rise to great power status too often obfuscates the intention and essence of China’s diplomacy. China’s climate diplomacy cannot be fully appreciated without a reckoning with its dual identity of a developing country and a great power. In the short-term lead up to COP27, and in the longer-term transition to its own modernity, China will need to effectively bridge domestic policymaking, bilateral climate cooperation and multilateral climate negotiations.
Climate diplomacy should not be politicised as a game of winner-takes-all, nor be monopolised by a few countries. Instead, it should be fuelled by a shared concern for the human condition. Without authentic solidarity, international climate diplomacy would be building sandcastles, invariably falling with the changing geopolitical circumstances. China will need to continue to walk the climate talk and propel international climate cooperation, not only to ascertain itself as an aspiring responsible great power, but to further nurture a reciprocal and respectful relationship between human and nature.
This article was first published by LSE IDEAS. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, the Grantham Research Institute or the London School of Economics and Political Science.