November 03, 2010

The United States & China: Escalating Tensions at the UNFCCC or a New Geo-Political Reality?

Making a guest appearance on the blog today is the talented Alex Stark, CNAS natural security veteran who now spends her free time traveling to China (last month) and Cancun (later this month) to monitor and write about this year's climate change negotiations. Here are her impressions of the U.S.-China dynamic, from the perspective of someone who witnessed it firsthand.

Maybe it was just coincidence, but it felt like the moment I returned home from Tianjin, examples of U.S.-China tensions began popping up left and right.  Clearly then, U.S.-China tensions are not unique to the UNFCCC system.  On the contrary, they are becoming endemic to our current global geopolitical system, and unavoidable in any international forum, whether decisions are reached by consensus or unilaterally.  And as China’s economy explodes and its government becomes more aggressive internationally, we will only see more examples of diplomats from both sides taking cautious steps to feel one another out on these issues. 

Much has been made of the U.S.-China tensions that surfaced in high dramatic fashion in Tianjin.  It is hard to know exactly how these tensions manifested during the negotiations themselves, as non-governmental observers were banned from attending the LCA (non-Kyoto Protocol) negotiating sessions. Yet, there must have been substantial disagreement: at the mid-week stock-taking plenary the U.S. delegation lashed out stridently at ‘certain countries’ that were said to be blocking negotiations with procedural stalling.  The conflict escalated as each side held retaliatory press conferences, touting their own domestic mitigation efforts and criticizing certain another country’s intransigence. 

Many pointed to the U.S.-China tensions as a signal that the UNFCCC negotiating process was finally broken, that a forum of 192 member countries that requires a consensus-building process could never produce a legally binding treaty.  These arguments all make it seem as though the emergence of tensions between the United States and China are unique to the UNFCCC process. 

In fact, the weeks following the conclusion of the Tianjin conference have shown that these bilateral tensions are popping up everywhere. 

Over the course of the past several months, U.S.-China tensions have reemerged on currency issues, as the United States pressed China to allow its currency to rise in value, arguing that an artificially depressed renminbi is creating a global trade imbalance and giving Chinese manufacturers an export advantage.  This is not a tangential foreign policy issue: The New York Times has labeled it “the most vexing international economic problem facing the Obama administration.”  The Obama administration also recently agreed to investigate charges by a U.S. trade union that China is illegally supporting its alternative energy industry through subsidies, escalating trade tensions between the two countries. 

Two days after the conclusion of the Tianjin conference, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned his Chinese counterpart that both countries must work to prevent “mistrust, miscalculations and mistakes,” after a Chinese naval commander made menacing remarks to the media about U.S. policy toward Taiwan.  China’s military’s rapid growth and increase in sophistication, especially its Navy, has prompted tensions with the United States.  Although these tensions are primarily rhetorical and vague, we are already beginning to see them escalate in the South China Sea, where Chinese Naval exercises have prompted concern from the United States and bordering countries that China intends to exert unilateral control over an area that is broadly regarded as a global commons.  At stake, incidentally, is mineral wealth of oil and gas reserves beneath several islands, on top of the fact that these sea lanes are vital for the energy imports of most East Asian nations.

Tensions between the United States and China have been growing over a variety of mineral and natural resource supplies.  China produces 97% of rare minerals, which are a critical part in the manufacture of a huge variety of important technologies, from cell phones to missiles.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced that the United States will begin looking for other sources of the strategically important minerals, as Chinese companies recently halted exports to Japan because of a South China Sea incident. China’s recent spate of investments in Africa in natural and energy resources, often through corrupt governments or dictatorships, have also prompted concern with the United States and its allies. 
There’s actually good news here.  On almost every other issue, rising tensions will be very difficult to avert, since almost every one of them can be construed as a zero-sum game.  Renewable energy and addressing environment concerns, however, can be win-win.

Just after the Tianjin talks ended, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, made a trip to China and met with her Chinese counterpart, Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian. During the trip, the two signed a Memorandum of Understanding that formalized the partnership on environmental protection between the two countries.  According to the EPA, the under the terms of the MOU the United States will “collaborate with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) on the prevention and management of air pollution, water pollution, pollution from persistent organic pollutants and other toxics, hazardous and solid waste, and the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental law.”

The MOU is a good first step, but it’s not enough.  Instead of filing a complaint with the WTO, the United States should find ways to cooperate more closely with China on renewable energy technology research, development and trade.  This kind of cooperation could be incredibly effective, especially considering that these are now probably two of the most advanced countries in the world when it comes to alternative energy technology, and cooperation on these kinds of on-the-ground issues could smooth out the high-level negotiating process by encouraging greater U.S.-China cooperation at the UNFCCC in Cancun.