Biden’s Summit on Climate and Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative

Introduction 

US President Joe Biden hosted a Summit on Climate (April 22-23, 2021) which was attended by 40 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Ever since taking over as President, Biden has sent out a strong message that the US would take a leadership role as far as climate issues are concerned. During his address at the Summit, the US President also dubbed this decade as decisive. Said Biden: 

Scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade – this is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. 

Under the Trump Administration, the US had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, while one of Biden’s first steps was getting the US to re-join the Paris Agreement, and he has also made a commitment of $1.2 billion to a Green Climate Fund.  Another important component of Biden’s climate change agenda includes an infrastructural package, which seeks to invest in clean energy transition. The Biden Administration has also been laying emphasis on creating clean energy jobs, and greater investment in Research and Development (R and D) related to clean energy. 

US-China scope for cooperation? 

While ties between US and China have witnessed a serious deterioration in recent weeks, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the Climate Change Summit. Days before the Climate Summit, Xi, while addressing the Boao Forum at Hainan, was critical of the US for promoting a cold war mentality, but did clearly leave the door open for cooperation with the US in dealing with common challenges posed by climate change.

In spite of the downward spiral in bilateral relations, Biden and members of his administration have also repeatedly stated that there is scope for the US and China to work together.

Biden’s Climate Change envoy, John Kerry, had visited China earlier this month, and during the course of his trip exchanged notes with China’s special envoy for climate change, Xie Zhenhua. A joint statement released by both sides stated

The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,

An invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend the Summit was extended during Kerry’s visit, though China did not give any confirmation (Xi gave his confirmation to attend the Summit one day before).

Agenda of the Summit

During the summit, the US President made a commitment that US would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by around 50% below its 2005 emissions levels, by 2030. (Former US President Barack Obama had made a commitment to reducing emissions around 26-28% by 2025.) Biden’s announcement has been hailed by some, and being cited as a reiteration of the point that Biden wants to show the way on climate change. Biden’s announcement may be opposed by certain quarters within the US who feel that the US should not be compelled to reduce emissions drastically.

Before the Summit, China had made it clear that it would not toe the US line. During John Kerry’s China visit the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Le Yusheng, said:  

Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.

While addressing the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated a commitment he had made last year while addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA): that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and to peak carbon emissions by 2030. He reiterated the need for global cooperation. 

How Biden and Xi linked their commitment to environment with their economic visions 

What was interesting was that both Biden and Xi Jinping also linked the climate goals to their economic goals. Xi Jinping spoke about a focus on a ‘green’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Interestingly, the mega connectivity project, often dubbed as China’s ‘Marshall Plan,’ has often been criticised not just for its lack of transparency, but also for the fact that it is not environmentally friendly (in fact many observers have argued that Biden’s infrastructural plan is a counter to China’s BRI).

Biden has repeatedly spoken about creating clean jobs and infrastructure and repeated the same during his address. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, while Washington-Beijing ties are likely to face numerous strains, climate change seems to be one area where there is space for cooperation between the two. While the US under Biden is likely to follow a significantly different approach from that under Trump, China is unlikely to budge from its commitments. What would be interesting to see is whether Beijing actually addresses criticisms of the BRI not being environmentally friendly. While China and the US may find some common ground on climate change, it is likely that the Biden administration, given its focus on the environment, may come down more harshly on the BRI and may come up with an alternative.

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