Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Green Deal at COP26 Can’t Be a Green Light for China

The idea that appeasing Beijing can save the planet is a fantasy.

By , a senior advisor at the Stanford University program on geopolitics and technology.
Chinese President Xi Jinping virtually addresses the United Nations General Assembly
Chinese President Xi Jinping virtually addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21. Spencer Platt/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has set high expectations for itself as the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26, begins. During his presidential run, Joe Biden’s campaign website declared that there was “no greater challenge facing our country and our world” than climate change.” The U.S. president’s climate envoy, John Kerry, recently called the summit the world’s “last best hope” to avoid disaster. Activists are calling for dramatic action: the young climate campaigner Greta Thunberg said that it is time to “uproot the system,” fundamentally overhauling the domestic and foreign policies of countries everywhere.

Yet the Biden administration needs to tread carefully, lest it stumble into a trap. At COP26 and after, the administration will face pressure—from within and without—to make diplomatic concessions to China as the price of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s cooperation on climate. If Biden does so, he risks exposing the United States to a danger as significant as that posed by a changing climate: losing an intensifying conflict with Beijing. America is already confronting a new cold war that could well become a hot war, and winning that contest must be its guiding priority.

It should also recognize a simple reality: The United States won’t be able to lead on any global issue, climate included, if it doesn’t defend the international system it has led since World War II against the challenge posed by China.

The Biden administration has set high expectations for itself as the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26, begins. During his presidential run, Joe Biden’s campaign website declared that there was “no greater challenge facing our country and our world” than climate change.” The U.S. president’s climate envoy, John Kerry, recently called the summit the world’s “last best hope” to avoid disaster. Activists are calling for dramatic action: the young climate campaigner Greta Thunberg said that it is time to “uproot the system,” fundamentally overhauling the domestic and foreign policies of countries everywhere.

Yet the Biden administration needs to tread carefully, lest it stumble into a trap. At COP26 and after, the administration will face pressure—from within and without—to make diplomatic concessions to China as the price of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s cooperation on climate. If Biden does so, he risks exposing the United States to a danger as significant as that posed by a changing climate: losing an intensifying conflict with Beijing. America is already confronting a new cold war that could well become a hot war, and winning that contest must be its guiding priority.

It should also recognize a simple reality: The United States won’t be able to lead on any global issue, climate included, if it doesn’t defend the international system it has led since World War II against the challenge posed by China.

Strategy involves setting priorities. In Silicon Valley, strategy flows from what executives refer to as “first principles”—the foundational principles that guide all other decisions. America’s first principles are spelled out in the Declaration of Independence—“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” U.S. foreign policy should prioritize above all else defending these principles against an aggressive autocracy seeking to impose its will on the world.

As I write in my new book, The Wires of War, China has been fighting the United States in the “gray zone”—the murky area between war and peace—for years. Chinese policies have hollowed out America’s industrial base and plundered U.S. intellectual property in an epic case of economic aggression. China is using advanced technologies and control of the internet’s physical infrastructure to spread its geopolitical influence and create an authoritarian techno-bloc that will erode democratic freedoms around the world.

Xi is also trying to overturn the balance of power in Asia through the militarization of the South China Sea, threats against a democratic Taiwan, violent coercion along the border with India, and other initiatives. He has called China’s relations with the U.S. a “new Long March”—a reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s deadly struggle against its enemies in the 1930s.

This doesn’t just amount to a new cold war; the danger of a real war is also rising. China’s recent test of a hypersonic missile—unsubtly named after the Long March—is part of a decadeslong military buildup that has given Beijing the biggest navy and ballistic missile force in the world. U.S. Department of Defense officials have publicly warned that the Chinese military could invade Taiwan in the next half-decade. Taiwan’s defense minister believes China could attempt a “full-scale” invasion by 2025. Not since the height of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry have the risks of great-power military conflict been so high, and yet the United States has only slowly responded to the threat.

The last two administrations have committed to pursuing more competitive policies against China. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the new Australia- U.K.-U.S. defense pact, and other groupings have emerged as multilateral responses to Chinese belligerence. The United States has imposed sanctions on Chinese firms and officials that are implicated in Beijing’s expansion and repression; the Department of Defense is working to develop better options for defending Taiwan.

But as former Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger argues, the United States waited so long to get serious about competition that it now has no time to lose. The fate of Taiwan and the credibility of U.S. power are hanging in suspense as Chinese leaders irrevocably commit to reunification, Chinese ships and planes engage in ever-more-provocative drills, and Chinese troops simulate landings on hostile beaches.

This makes climate a fraught issue. Administration officials initially pledged that Biden would not pull his punches in order to gain China’s cooperation on the environment. Yet China is playing hard to get: Xi isn’t even attending COP26, sending a lower-level official instead.

Moreover, even as Chinese diplomats have dangled green deals in front of their American counterparts, they have insisted that Biden first take “positive actions” such as reducing U.S. support for Taiwan, easing sanctions related to Beijing’s repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and otherwise softening American policies. In other words, China is making diplomatic appeasement the price of collective climate action.

Climate activists, progressive politicians, and even some administration officials might favor making the concessions Beijing wants in order to reach a new global climate agreement. “Nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new Cold War between the United States and China,” one letter signed by 40 progressive organizations declares. “We won’t be able to solve the challenges of the 21st century like the climate crisis and global health unless we have relationships that harness partnerships across the globe, including China,” Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman said in agreement. But China should engage in climate negotiations because its people inhabit the same planet—not because the United States bribes Chinese officials with geopolitical concessions.

Nor is there any record of China being moved to action because of U.S. concessions. At the height of so-called U.S.-Chinese engagement in the 2000s, Chinese climate diplomacy remained stubbornly obstructionist. When Chinese climate policy has shifted, it has been because of domestic politics, not foreign influence. The purge of state-owned energy giants’ leadership in 2012 did far more to move climate policy in China than any interventions by the West. Believing that Beijing is waiting for Washington to play nice to get more serious on emissions is not just fatally naive—it seriously underestimates China’s own agency.

In fact, a climate bargain with Beijing wouldn’t be worth much: China has an abysmal record of upholding international agreements—on issues from chemical and biological weapons to the political status of Hong Kong—that the Chinese Communist Party comes to find inconvenient. If the party were authentically serious about making major efforts on climate, it  would not have so brutally repressed and intimidated many of the country’s own climate activists.

Most important, a climate deal purchased through appeasement would be a geopolitical debacle. It would harm America’s credibility as a superpower and reinforce perceptions in Asia and around the world that Washington isn’t serious about counterbalancing Beijing’s power. It would be a signal, to America’s allies and the U.S. government, that strategic competition can be deprioritized.

The United States can’t afford to send that message now. As Pentagon war games show, America must rapidly improve its military capabilities in the Western Pacific, or it will be in grave danger of losing a war in the Taiwan Strait, with devastating consequences throughout the region. The United States has only a short period of time in which to prevent China from dominating the world’s communications infrastructure and key technologies. Right now, Washington is vacillating its way to losing a geopolitical competition—and perhaps a military showdown—with Beijing, and thereby sustaining an irreparable blow to the U.S.-led global order.

Climate is undoubtedly an important issue. It requires concerted investments in green energy and other technological innovations. The United States should work with other democratic countries to set aggressive emissions reduction targets—and to collectively pressure China, which falsely portrays itself as a defender of the environment while leading the world in climate pollution, driven mostly through its state-owned energy giants.

In the end, U.S.-China competition is more than a struggle between two countries. It is a struggle between the universal democratic values the United States has long championed and the brutal authoritarianism China is bringing into the digital age. Winning that struggle will require a laser focus on the challenge at hand—and rejecting the allure of declaring peace for our time around a global green deal that emboldens warmongers in Beijing. A green deal for the environment cannot cost the free world a green light for China.

Jacob Helberg is a senior advisor at the Stanford University program on geopolitics and technology, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of a forthcoming book on the nexus of technology policy and national security. Twitter: @JacobHelberg

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Bill Clinton and Joe Biden  at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional delegation to the NATO summit in Spain on July 7, 1998.

Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

A report card is superimposed over U.S. President Joe Biden.

Is Biden’s Foreign Policy Grade A Material?

More than 30 experts grade the U.S. president’s first year of foreign policy.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gives a press briefing.

Defining the Biden Doctrine

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sat down with FP to talk about Russia, China, relations with Europe, and year one of the Biden presidency.

Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk region of the country attend the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment in Kiev on November 15, 2018.

The West’s Weapons Won’t Make Any Difference to Ukraine

U.S. military equipment wouldn’t realistically help Ukrainians—or intimidate Putin.