A recent essay by Brookings Institution scholar Tom Wright has caused a small storm among watchers of China-U.S. relations. In the process, the essay has indirectly raised difficult questions around strategic priorities – and the difficulties in managing competing ones. But even more fundamentally, Wright’s article once again brings to the fore old dilemmas around strategic tradeoffs when it comes to the “right” mix of competitive and cooperative elements in the United States’ China strategy, strategies of linkage, and the extent to which future, lasting gains from cooperation around wicked global problems – such as climate change – may come at the cost of ceding geostrategic space to Beijing.
Writing in The Atlantic on December 23, Wright focuses on President-elect Joe Biden appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as special presidential envoy on climate change, and the dangers it may entail in terms of pushing back Chinese intransigence. Based on his conversations with sources close to Kerry, Wright notes that Kerry would front-and-center cooperation around climate change and push geopolitical rivalry to the background. As Wright writes, “Kerry believes that cooperation with China is the key to progress on climate change and that climate is by far the most important issue in the relationship between the United States and China.”
Without litigating the merit of Kerry’s apparent proposition, Wright’s article, as well as the debate surrounding it, highlights three sets of vexing questions, none of which are easy – and some of them impossible — to answer.
The first revolve around strategic priorities. As author David Wallace-Wells in “The Uninhabitable Earth,” his 2019 book on climate change, describes it, the gradualness of climate change is a “pernicious fairy tale.” In fact, as he documents, drawing on a wealth of research, the effects of climate change – some near apocalyptic – are already here for all to see, if we choose to look, that is. Simply put, climate change is as much part of the extant global security landscape as missile batteries on artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Given these circumstances, Kerry is quite right to view it as the defining challenge that ought to shape relations between great, industrial, powers.
But if climate change is indeed the numero uno national and international security threat, should it not be dealt with as such? Put provocatively, why should the United States not put it ahead of the pursuit of continued hegemony in the Pacific? Even more provocatively: the South China Sea as a Chinese lake is unlikely to pose an existential threat to the United States; failing to arrest and mitigate climate change would certainly be. If such efforts can only succeed through bringing Beijing onboard, does common sense then not dictate that it be done so, even at the cost of sustaining a “liberal international order”? After all, for any world order to work and be sustained over time – liberal or otherwise – one would need a world to begin with. (The easy answer – that it is also in the Chinese interest to cooperate with the U.S. on climate change – does not work; as Wright rightly points out, now that Beijing sees an opening in Kerry’s appointment, it will do its best to foreground climate issues. It would be rational for Chinese leaders to pursue a strategy of linking climate negotiations with conventional geostrategic issues.)
Of course, one could object to this treatment of political goals (liberal international order, free and open/secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific, U.S. hegemony in the Pacific, the list goes on) with anthropogenic risk mitigation targets on an equal footing. Depending on who you ask, some would prioritize one over the other. And this is a fair criticism, though one that is fraught with difficult conceptual questions that it, in turn, poses. For one, how does a security planner consistently rank order threats in a way that allows for appropriate allocation of diplomatic energy and material resources? Isn’t comparison within an exceedingly diverse basket of risks (not to mention assign meaningful probabilities to them materializing over a fixed time horizon) committing what philosophers term a category error, akin to comparing apples and oranges?
This brings me to the final set of questions: Whether China-U.S. tradeoffs between competing priorities are indeed possible to begin with, even when both sides act in good faith. (Wright seems to think that China does not “intend for [climate negotiations] to lead anywhere.”) Climate change negotiations – and new norm-making – involves a range of other newly industrializing nations, including India. Truly effective climate change diplomacy is multilateral to its core, but the game theory behind multilateral bargaining is staggeringly complex. So simply put: even if China and the United States were to reach an understanding around linking climate positions to geopolitical contest, they are far from being the only players who would be required for truly revolutionary new norms, or even sustaining existing ones — both imperatives for urgent climate action.
All this aside, however, one thing the ongoing pandemic has made abundantly clear to the world’s younger generations is that global catastrophic risks, including climate change, are very much here, and far from being the stuff of dystopian fiction. Pan demos — all people. It is unlikely that the new occupants of the White House come January 20 will forget that, or even relegate it to the background in the name of abstract geopolitics.