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Biden’s Climate Diplomacy Is a Gift to China

The administration is paying for vain hopes with dangerous concessions.

By , a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.
Kerry at COP26 in Glasgow
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks during a joint U.S.-Chinese statement at the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 10. JEFF J MITCHELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate diplomacy with China is rooted in the fantasy that Washington can turn Beijing into a constructive global partner simply by treating it like one. The administration is paying for this vain hope with very real concessions in policy areas unrelated to climate, even as it pressures U.S. allies to imitate its approach. Unless the administration changes course, it risks damaging the United States’ long-term security and accelerating China’s sprint to dominance in key military and technology fields.

The premise of the administration’s diplomacy with Beijing seems to be that extracting promises to combat future climate change will evoke less aggressive behavior from China’s leaders. A China that reduces emissions, the thinking seems to go, is a China that wants to be a global good steward—and good stewards don’t start wars. The mere act of engagement, according to this thesis, is bound to lower temperatures, open new avenues of cooperation, and restore the United States to the status of global role model.

In reality, Beijing sees climate diplomacy as just another venue to gain strategic advantages over the United States and its allies. It has learned the West is easily gamed: China can extract concessions and encumber rivals with costly emission restrictions that slow their growth while avoiding similar restrictions on its own economy—simply by pledging to make such cuts in the far-off future. One need only look at China’s vast build-out of coal-fired power plants to see the lack of sincerity behind those pledges.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate diplomacy with China is rooted in the fantasy that Washington can turn Beijing into a constructive global partner simply by treating it like one. The administration is paying for this vain hope with very real concessions in policy areas unrelated to climate, even as it pressures U.S. allies to imitate its approach. Unless the administration changes course, it risks damaging the United States’ long-term security and accelerating China’s sprint to dominance in key military and technology fields.

The premise of the administration’s diplomacy with Beijing seems to be that extracting promises to combat future climate change will evoke less aggressive behavior from China’s leaders. A China that reduces emissions, the thinking seems to go, is a China that wants to be a global good steward—and good stewards don’t start wars. The mere act of engagement, according to this thesis, is bound to lower temperatures, open new avenues of cooperation, and restore the United States to the status of global role model.

In reality, Beijing sees climate diplomacy as just another venue to gain strategic advantages over the United States and its allies. It has learned the West is easily gamed: China can extract concessions and encumber rivals with costly emission restrictions that slow their growth while avoiding similar restrictions on its own economy—simply by pledging to make such cuts in the far-off future. One need only look at China’s vast build-out of coal-fired power plants to see the lack of sincerity behind those pledges.

Viewed from this perspective, Biden’s carbon pledge represents an opportunity of historic proportions for China. The scale of U.S. commitments is breathtaking, involving nothing less than halving emissions by 2030 and completely eliminating them by 2050. Implementing that goal would require reordering the U.S. economy, costing, by one estimate, $4.4 trillion annually—the equivalent of all tax revenue raised by the government this year. Even if Congress doesn’t ratify the plan, the White House’s pursuit of its ambitious energy transition goals will impose heavy costs on the economy, raising industry costs and eliminating the domestic energy supplies that drive U.S. growth and give the United States a sustained strategic advantage over resource-poor China.

In parallel, the administration is pursuing domestic spending plans that will slow growth and expand deficits. Exhibit A is its $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan, which contains only around $157 billion for actual infrastructure. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate, the plan will grow deficits by $3 trillion over the next decade; by another estimate, the amount could be as high as $4.6 trillion.

The administration seems to be running a “climate first” agenda with no connection to U.S. interests or, for that matter, its own China strategy.

The damage of Biden’s approach is not limited to the United States. At the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the administration joined other wealthy Western countries to lobby for ambitious emissions targets. In practice, these targets will make Europe more dependent on Russian gas and reduce the amount NATO allies can spend on defense. In Asia, the Biden administration’s priorities put undue pressure on some of its most important strategic partners—Australia, India, and Japan, all of which depend on coal and form the front line of resistance to Chinese expansion. These coal plants don’t suddenly go away because of U.S. opposition; they are simply sold at rock-bottom rates to Chinese state-owned enterprises and reassembled in China, which uses the coal to fuel its ongoing industrial expansion and military modernization.

China is pushing for more of this kind of U.S. behavior. Shrewdly, Chinese President Xi Jinping remained aloof throughout the U.N. climate change conference’s deliberations and refused to sign onto the West’s revised pledges. He waited until Washington had bound itself to new goals to swoop in and score public relations points for the optics of seeking common ground. So far, this has amounted to a nebulous promise of future cooperation undergirded by a firm refusal to reduce China’s emissions (which are set to increase between now and 2030) and demand for Western financial aid for the courtesy of its participation.

It is not too late for the administration to change course from this self-destructive path.

First, Biden’s team needs to align climate diplomacy with U.S. interests and, for that matter, its own China strategy. As it stands, the administration seems to be running a “climate first” agenda with no connection to either. The White House should condition cooperation with China on specific behavior and not invite Beijing to demand concessions to cement a convergence on climate. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry seemed to be doing exactly that when he suggested Washington rethink its criticism of Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs or when he looks for consolation prizes to mollify Chinese anger over the U.S.-U.K. submarine deal with Australia. The United States cannot afford to have a tacitly empowered apologist conducting parallel diplomacy with the most powerful rival the United States has ever faced.

Second, the administration needs to avoid a climate policy that undercuts the long-term economic strength all future U.S. security depends on. Climate policy is inseparable from economics—and therefore, geopolitics. Washington should challenge Beijing to match its emissions goals and be willing to drop those goals entirely when Beijing declines the invitation.

Critics will contend that doing so hurts the planet. Yet recent experience suggests otherwise. According to Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, the United States’ emissions reductions have been “the largest in the history of energy.” Between 2000 and 2020, U.S. emissions declined by 25 percent even as energy production increased by 29 percent. This was mainly achieved not by regulations but by exploiting the very domestic sources of energy—especially natural gas—that the administration now wants to impede. By comparison, China’s emissions have increased by 8 percent since it signed the Paris Agreement in 2015. Besides, what does it profit the United States if, by pursuing its highest climate goals, it guts the one economy the free world’s security depends on—while the world’s largest polluter increases emissions further and gains the ability to subject the United States to its whims?

Finally, the administration needs to resist the intrusion of progressive domestic causes into spending plans it sells as strengthening the country for competition with China. The United States is entering the geopolitical fight of its life and needs to act accordingly. Every dollar that grows the debt without advancing concrete goals—spurring technological innovation, improving social cohesion, enhancing energy independence, raising military preparedness—is a dollar misspent.

Clearly, China recognizes what’s at stake. It’s high time the United States did as well.

A. Wess Mitchell is a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the Trump administration.

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