At last year’s U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, the signing of a rushed joint China-U.S. action plan surprised observers. In an equally surprising encore, the two major powers’ “double act” during an EU-U.S. sponsored ministerial meeting at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh has been nothing short of a welcome sign for both observers and diplomats.
Coming on the back of the Biden-Xi presidential meeting in Bali, China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, made an unannounced appearance alongside his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, at an event dedicated to reducing methane emissions. Xie’s signal of support for the methane pledge, which China has not yet signed, was a clear-cut affirmation of the recommencement of official engagements between China and the United States on all things climate – cooperation that came to an abrupt end in the aftermath of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Yet it remains to be seen if the restart of official talks can produce tangible results or be translated into concrete, actionable plans. It is particularly timely to question whether or not Beijing and Washington can work in tandem in developing the technologies, as well as the regulatory frameworks, deemed essential for mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing global dependency on fossil fuels.
The short answer, unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, is no. In spite of their alleged agreement to isolate the climate dossier from the wider, and highly contentious, context of their bilateral relations, their status as technological rivals, coupled with the significance of technological supremacy for power projection capabilities, will severely hinder the prospect of a common Sino-American approach to climate change.
Geopolitics of Climate Change and Technological Innovation
The geopolitics of climate change, or more accurately the geopolitical side effects of a changing climate, can be discussed from three different angels.
First is the all-encompassing issue of food and resource security and the prospect of some nations converting their domestic food production capacity into an instrument of power.
Second, it is also possible to discuss climate change as a threat multiplier. For instance, in locations where sociopolitical tensions already run high or regulatory frameworks with regard to extractive activities are ambiguous, climate change could further exacerbate tensions.
The third strategic effect of climate change is linked to its unequal impact both among and within nations, whereby winners and losers will likely develop conflicting perspectives on both reversing or consolidating the effects of climate change.
The geopolitics of technology and technological innovation, on the other hand, can be explored from two standpoints: a system-level perspective, which considers technological innovation as a power booster, and a post-modern or critical lens, which highlights how states exercise power, and exert influence, via standardization and/or agenda setting.
With regard to the former, suffice to say that modern-day diplomacy and warfare are only possible thanks to the technological strides of the recent past. Whether it is shuttle diplomacy, digital diplomacy, remotely operated drones, or the use of virtual reality as a more cost-effective alternative to traditional training regiments for pilots, it is indisputable that the conduct of both war and diplomacy is directly linked to technological advancements. What stands out in this context is that there is a strong technological element in any nation’s ability to project power and defend its vital national security interests. As Mark Leonard has put it, “power and influence are formulated at the intersection of technology and geopolitics.”
Regarding the latter, it is a commonly acknowledged observation that one who sets the standards gets to rule. More precisely, one can exercise significant influence if rules of conduct or parameters of responsible behavior are based on, or rooted in, its norms and values. Hence, it ought not to be surprising that the United States has been alarmed by China’s more hands-on approach to agenda-setting practices at international forums or Chinese tech companies’ fast expansion into other markets. Washington worries that the more Chinese tech products are used around the globe, the easier it becomes for China to export its values and set the rules of the game.
The Nexus of Technological Cooperation and Environmental Cooperation
To realize the link between technology and climate change, one needs to look no further than Beijing’s and Washington’s own action plans for tackling and coping with the adverse effects of environmental degradation and a fast-warming planet. Both countries have assigned strategic importance to technological innovation and the up-skilling of their labor markets in their battle against the looming climate crisis and their push toward the creation of green economies.
Strategic technologies deemed critical for addressing and mitigating the effects of climate change can be divided into two groups. On the one end of the spectrum, there are the technologies that can harness the so-called clean sources of energy such as plants, geothermal heat, or the sun. On the other end are technologies that are essential to the energy industry because they can make traditional forms of energy not just cleaner but also more efficient. Cases in point include coal gasification, carbon capture and storage, and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology.
In addition, there are technologies that are situated in between the two groups mentioned above. One group comprises technologies necessary for both making material production processes greener and increasing materials’ life cycles and efficiency. The other group includes space-related technologies and AI. The effects of climate change can be more comprehensively understood once states develop the capabilities to process larger sets of satellite data more frequently. Doing so requires advances in satellite technologies as well as machine learning so more data can be processed within a considerably shorter timeframe.
Is Cooperation Possible?
From a global good perspective, China and the United States must put aside their strategic differences and seek to maximize cooperation on climate change. This is so because the climate crisis presents a global threat and hence dealing with it calls for global efforts. However, the problem today is that China’s and the United States’ strategic priorities do not align. In spite of their common identification of climate change as a pressing national and global security threat, their national interests in outdoing one another for global supremacy make it difficult for the two to work hand-in-hand in addressing the climate crisis.
While the prospect of an all-out war between the United States and China remains marginal, it is nonetheless abundantly clear that the two are locked in a technological cold war, as evident in their aggressive decoupling efforts. Fueled by what Alex Capri has described as techno nationalism, Chinese and U.S. behaviors are best described as “mercantilist-like.” This view ties a nation’s national security, economic competitiveness, and socio-political stability to technological advancement.
Emboldened by its impressive economic growth, China now seeks recognition for its governance model, claiming that it outperforms Western liberal democracy on a number of key indicators. The United States, for its part, is determined to withhold such recognition. Hence, while Chinese diplomats are drumbeating the virtues of their model and courting developing countries to follow the Chinese path, U.S. officials are trying to counter those efforts by highlighting the normative shortcomings of the Chinese model, such as lack of respect for human rights and individual privacy.
This rivalry ought not to be surprising. After all, leadership and ongoing innovation in the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution will certainly confer critical economic, political, and military power. This is why both countries have devoted large sums of capital to finance R&D on such technologies and, in the process, have developed a zero-sum view on each other’s progress, whereby gains by China are taken as a loss for the United States and vice versa. This trend was most vividly on display at the confirmation hearing for Lloyd Austin, Biden’s secretary of defense. Austin stated that he would maintain a “laser-like focus” on sharpening the United States’ “competitive edge” against China’s increasingly powerful military and described Beijing as “the most significant threat going forward” for the United States.
However, what makes strategic compartmentalization highly unlikely is the fact that China-U.S. technological competition is not confined to the innovation race alone. Rather, it includes a fierce, and fast-intensifying, rivalry over the establishment of regulatory frameworks for the development and governance of new technologies, which pits two entirely different value systems against one another. One can see a clear manifestation of this unfolding normative contest in China’s Global Initiative on Data Security as well as its recently updated Personal Information Protection Law, which aims to counter the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, and the U.S. proposal for the establishment of a G-7 AI Pact as well as its revitalization of the Wassenaar Arrangement.
Throughout the history, nations have sought technological superiority in order to strategically outmaneuver their rivals and exercise power and influence beyond their immediate borders. Therefore, the current state of technological contestation between China and the United States ought not to be surprising. Nor should be their inability to co-invent the technologies deemed essential for combating climate change and collaborate on the scaling-up of such technologies. Technological knowhow and technology transfers are viewed as instruments of leverage and influence, which China and the United States could utilize to tilt other states into their own spheres of influence. This tendency could lead to further division and an unfortunate return of Cold War mentality to global politics.
More broadly, the two superpowers are unlikely to be able to separate climate change from the grander strategic context of their bilateral relations simply because the valuational distance between their governing models has widened as the power gap between them has shrunk. China, in fact, made this clear on the eve of Kerry’s trip to Tianjin last year, when Foreign Minster Wang Yi dismissed the idea of splitting climate from other policy issues.
Technological cooperation for tackling climate change would only become possible if Beijing and Washington manage to set up a high-level committee to regulate their technological rivalry; that is, to set the basic rules for ultimately arriving at a consensus that neither will seek to inflict a high-tech attack on the other. As long as this set up is missing, the prospect for their technological cooperation on other fronts, including climate change, will remain illusive.