China Power

China’s Climate Diplomacy Surge 

Recent Features

China Power | Environment | East Asia

China’s Climate Diplomacy Surge 

As climate change emerges as a key focus in some of China’s recent diplomatic initiatives, there are opportunities for the U.S. to enhance its own climate diplomacy efforts. 

China’s Climate Diplomacy Surge 
Credit: Depositphotos

In recent weeks, China has hosted high-level state visits from the presidents of France, Brazil, and Gabon. Climate change emerged as a central theme during these visits, emphasizing foreign partners’ enthusiasm to cooperate with China on climate issues and showcasing China’s expanding influence in global climate change partnerships. 

Decarbonization has emerged as a cornerstone of China’s external coalition-building efforts to counter perceived attempts to decouple with China amid escalating tensions with the United States. As China seeks to enhance clean-tech collaboration abroad and increase green infrastructure investment in less developed countries, the U.S. should also consider bolstering its bilateral climate finance, technology, and investment partnerships with developing nations.

Climate-related Priorities Rise to the Top During State Visits

China and France’s joint statement following the meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Emmanual Macron dedicated 14 points to climate issues, up from nine points in their last joint statement in 2019. China and France reaffirmed their carbon neutrality goals, and prioritized climate change, biodiversity, land degradation prevention, and civilian nuclear power as key areas of cooperation. Both countries pledged to uphold their commitments under the Paris Agreement and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, working together to implement national climate strategies.  

The expansion of China-France nuclear energy cooperation builds on a longstanding partnership since the 1980s, when French companies helped construct China’s first domestic nuclear power plant. Both nations aim to enhance academic collaboration in cutting-edge R&D for civilian nuclear energy use and support technical and industrial cooperation in nuclear waste treatment. France is a major source of nuclear power technology, while China is the world’s second-largest global nuclear power consumer and is rapidly scaling up its new nuclear power plant construction to achieve its decarbonization commitments and improve energy security. 

Amid resistance of many EU climate activists to nuclear energy, trade partnerships outside of the EU are becoming increasingly vital for the French nuclear industry. Nuclear power is a zero-emissions energy source offering greater stability than intermittent renewable options like solar and wind. With over 48 percent of China’s direct carbon dioxide emissions coming from its power sector, deepening its partnership with France, a global leader in nuclear energy technology, could help facilitate a swifter transition to net zero.

Following a visit by Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazil-China climate partnership was outlined in a separate 14-point joint statement on climate change. It marks the second such climate-focused statement between China and a developing country, following a similar agreement with India in 2015. 

The joint statement reflected a message of climate solidarity between Brazil and China, reemphasizing their longstanding position that developed countries should take the lead in climate action due to their historical greenhouse gas emissions. They highlighted the shortfall in developed countries’ climate finance commitment and urged them to honor their agreements and provide a clear roadmap to increase adaptation finance. 

Their announced expansion in biofuel collaboration is notable, as Brazil is the world’s second-largest biofuel producer. While China has a large demand for biofuels, its future domestic output may face constraints due to food security and autonomy concerns, as the main source of biofuel is corn-based ethanol. Although the emission reduction potential of ethanol biofuels is still up for debate, this partnership could offer China a substantial alternative fuel source for hard-to-abate transport sectors while also reducing its oil dependence. 

Additionally, the statement emphasizes the importance of scientists from both countries participating in the IPCC for global climate governance, thus increasing the political influence of developing countries in climate change risk assessment and standard setting within the U.N. framework.

During the meeting with President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, Xi pledged that China would assist Gabon in diversifying its industries and promoting green infrastructure development through the Belt and Road Initiative, creating a model for South-South cooperation in addressing climate change. This could significantly impact Gabon, where the oil sector accounts for 38.5 percent of GDP and 70.5 percent of exports, per World Bank data. It also marks an important trend in China’s response to the G-7-led Just Energy Transition Partnerships, where the United States and other developed countries are financing green transition projects in developing countries.

As the scope for tech collaboration between the United States and China narrows amid rising tensions, China may seek to enhance clean-tech cooperation with partners it perceives as less likely to adopt Washington’s hardline stance toward China, such as Brazil and France. In this vein, the China-Brazil joint statement openly discusses collaboration and tech sharing in clean-tech areas like solar, wind, hydrogen, sustainable fuels, and space technologies for monitoring deforestation. 

Similarly, during Macron’s visit, several high-profile decarbonization-related deals were signed between Chinese SOEs and French companies. Agreements include low-carbon innovation projects between China’s State Power Investment Corporation and France’s EDF, and port-based green methanol supply collaboration between China COSCO Shipping, CMA CGM, and Shanghai International Port Group. 

Tech collaboration may be less prominent in China’s collaboration with Gabon, but the focus remains on aiding the diversification and greening of Gabon’s economy. This suggests that for less developed countries, China’s approach prioritizes their integration into China-led emerging clean-tech supply and value chains rather than joint technology collaboration.

The Implications for China-U.S. Competition

These state visits came at a critical time within the broader China-U.S. competition. As the United States seeks to establish a joint China strategy through the transatlantic alliance with Europe, some EU countries, like France, have signaled a desire for more EU sovereignty and a more engagement-oriented China approach. The United States faces concerns that China’s diplomatic efforts aim to “divide and rule,” creating misalignment between the U.S. and its allies. 

China’s climate-focused diplomatic initiatives serve as a consensus-building tool, enhancing economic integration and political trust with foreign partners, and facilitating domestic industrial upgrades. These developments potentially challenge the United States’ current strategies to reduce dependency on China in green industry supply chains and may draw developed and developing countries closer to China, raising several considerations for U.S. policymakers. 

First, the United States can focus on persuading key emerging economies and other developing countries that partnering with the U.S. brings substantial benefits to their climate efforts through enhanced climate finance. The U.S. should continue building its credibility as a reliable partner in combating climate change and prioritizing climate in its foreign policy agenda. The Biden administration has made a good start by rejoining the Paris Agreement, announcing the United States’ net-zero goal by 2050, and passing the Inflation Reduction Act, but more could be done.

In 2009, developed countries promised to help mobilize $100 billion annually from the public and private sectors to aid developing nations in transitioning to greener economies and adapting to climate disasters. Yet, wealthy countries, including the United States, have not fulfilled this promise. The Biden administration pledged $11 billion annually toward international climate aid by 2024, and in April 2023, promised another $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund and $500 million to combat Amazon deforestation. But actual spending remains below target. 

There are growing calls for China, the world’s largest emitter, to join developed countries to compensate for “loss and damage” in developing countries. But as China faces an economic slowdown and a looming debt crisis, it is less likely to assume new climate compensation responsibilities. The United States has a unique opportunity to step up and enhance its climate finance efforts to further demonstrate its global climate leadership.

Second, the U.S. should consider bolstering its bilateral climate-tech cooperation and investment partnerships with developing nations. China’s approach to climate diplomacy focuses on promoting bilateral collaborations with an emphasis on clean technology and green investments, as evidenced by its joint statements with Brazil and Gabon, among others. This approach prioritizes direct partnerships and business-oriented initiatives over traditional climate aid, which involves providing a set amount of financial support for certain climate goals. 

The United States can take heed of China’s approach by involving developing countries in a network of clean-tech, critical minerals, and manufacturing supply chains. This strategy aims to achieve a low-cost, diversified, and secure supply for the U.S. market. By adopting this approach, the United States can take a step forward that aligns with its incentives to diversify clean technology supply chains. 

But this means that Washington should also help key developing countries overcome decarbonization technology barriers, by promoting cross-border academic exchanges, increasing federal scholarships to attract students from the developing world who study decarbonization technologies, and supporting joint research and development projects with universities. Emerging technologies such as carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and green hydrogen have long-term potential but require substantial financial and tech support before becoming profitable. To promote investment in these technologies in developing countries, the United States can provide extra funding to multilateral development banks or establish new funds to finance such projects. The U.S. can also offer technical assistance to help developing countries design, implement, and manage clean-tech projects by sharing best practices, providing training, and facilitating knowledge transfer.

Third, the United States can actively create opportunities for experts from developing countries to participate in climate change standard-setting and risk analysis through multilateral organizations, ensuring a more inclusive climate discourse that incorporates the voices of developing nations. It can support capacity building in developing countries to improve climate data collection and reporting. The U.S. can also provide increased funding support to civil society organizations working on climate change issues in developing countries. These organizations can play an important role in advocating for the participation of experts from their countries in multilateral organizations. 

China’s recent climate cooperation efforts underscore the strategic significance of its climate diplomacy as a means of forging bilateral partnerships, particularly with developing nations. China is facing mounting pressure to accelerate its decarbonization efforts at home. Its economy is slowing down and may become more inward-looking, potentially reducing its commitment to international climate responsibilities. The United States can more effectively compete with China on the global stage by enhancing its focus on climate tech and investment collaboration in bilateral foreign policy agendas. 

China-U.S. competition centered on addressing climate change should be welcomed by the world, as it fosters a constructive rivalry that benefits us all.