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The Political Calculus Behind Xi Jinping’s Emphasis on Climate Leadership

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The Political Calculus Behind Xi Jinping’s Emphasis on Climate Leadership

Under Xi, China has embraced green diplomacy as part of its global ambitions.

The Political Calculus Behind Xi Jinping’s Emphasis on Climate Leadership

From left: Then-United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and then-U.S. President Barack Obama greet each other at a climate event in Hangzhou, China, Sep. 3, 2016.

Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza

On February 1, 2024, after renewing diplomatic ties with Nauru, a former ally of Taiwan, Qian Bo, China’s special envoy to Pacific Island nations, expressed China’s willingness to cooperate with Nauru in combating climate change. This initiative is part of a wider trend in China’s engagement with developing countries on environmental issues. 

Over the past decade, China has undergone a significant shift in its stance on climate change. Contrary to his predecessors, who highlighted climate equity and underscored China’s status as a developing nation, President Xi Jinping’s approach redefines China as a global leader in climate action.

Xi’s rebranding strategy aims to achieve two main goals: to reduce international interference on China’s domestic environmental issues and to leverage China’s advanced clean energy technologies to stabilize its diplomatic ties. By addressing nontraditional security issues such as climate change, China seeks to strengthen and expand its alliances, as exemplified by its collaboration with Nauru. In this context, China’s environmental diplomacy is a tool for advancing broader political and strategic interests in regions where it lacks strong traditional security bonds.

China’s Previous Passivism on Climate Issues 

Historically, China positioned itself as the world’s largest developing country, framing its approach to climate change within the narrative of climate equity. This stance was used to rationalize its limited responsibilities, casting China more as a participant than a leader in global climate governance. 

Chinese officials emphasized that developing nations were unfairly burdened by the historical carbon emissions of wealthier countries. In response to international pressure, China contended that, given its lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of GDP compared to developed nations, it was the responsibility of wealthier countries to lead in emission reductions and to share their green technology with the developing world.

Even after becoming the leading GHG emitter and the world’s second-largest economy in the early 2000s, China continued to invoke climate equity to justify its adherence to “non-negotiable” voluntary commitments. This stance was evident at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, where China resisted any additional international obligations beyond its existing commitments. Moreover, China rejected the idea of “China-U.S. co-governance” in climate matters, denying any legal or factual basis for such a role. Beijing continued to emphasize the primary responsibility of developed countries in leading and funding climate solutions

China’s Pivot to Climate Leadership Under Xi Jinping

Since taking the helm in 2012, Xi Jinping has significantly elevated China’s role in global governance. From his initial interactions with the international press as president, Xi has been vocal about China’s commitment to “proactively undertake more international responsibilities.” This ambition was soon complemented by the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the introduction of three significant global initiatives: the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and Global Civilization Initiative. Through these efforts, Xi has aimed to redefine China as a responsible emerging power, positioning it as a leader within a global governance framework that benefits Beijing.

Regarding climate change, Xi framed it as a worldwide challenge, advocating for global cooperation and pledging “new” contributions to tackle the issue. This marked a pivotal change from China’s earlier reluctance to engage in shared climate governance with the United States. The 2014 joint climate announcement with then-U.S. President Barack Obama signified China’s acceptance of significant climate responsibilities, showcasing a willingness to assume a leadership position in global climate governance for the first time. 

At the 2015 Paris Conference, Xi reiterated China’s role as “an active participant” in addressing climate challenges. Beyond mere declarations, he took concrete action by establishing a 20-billion-yuan fund for climate change to assist developing countries in the Global South with their climate issues.

In stark contrast to the United States, which retreated from its climate leadership by exiting the Paris Agreement in 2017, China continued to affirm its role as a committed leader in climate governance. Immediately following the U.S. withdrawal under Trump, Xi declared China’s unwavering support for the Paris Agreement. In that same year, Xi articulated China’s ambition to take up “the driving seat” in international climate change negotiations. He made significant commitments, including goals to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030, achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and halt the construction of new coal power projects abroad.

Deflecting International Pressure through Climate Leadership 

However, Xi’s commitments to address climate change appear driven by motives beyond environmental concerns alone. A noticeable discrepancy exists between his public declarations on climate governance and China’s actual policy implementations. Despite positioning itself as a leader in global climate initiatives, China’s domestic actions toward reducing fossil fuel usage remain tentative. In 2022, amid energy shortages, Xi declared, “China won’t stop burning fossil fuels until it is confident that clean energy can reliably replace them.” While China is hesitant to phase out fossil fuels within its borders, it actively urges other countries to commit to “cooperation” in climate issues.

Xi’s embrace of climate leadership could be seen as an effort to counteract long-standing international criticism of China’s environmental passivity, aiming to reduce foreign interference on its domestic affairs. By strategically positioning itself as a proactive leader in global climate governance, China has shifted from opposing international climate norms to redirecting global attention from itself to developing regions through initiatives like South-South cooperation and the BRI International Green Development Coalition

This strategic pivot, coupled with its progress in clean energy technology, places China as a key player in global climate discussions, leveraging its technological advancements to aid developing countries. Consequently, the international discourse has evolved, now placing less emphasis on pressuring China to comply with global climate standards and more on its leadership in fostering climate action in the developing world.

Strengthening Diplomatic Ties through Climate Cooperation

Contrary to the United States, which prioritizes military coalitions and strategic alliances, China’s diplomacy predominantly relies on fostering economic interdependence. This focus on economic ties is pragmatic, but without meaningful value-sharing that deeply influences host countries, it can quickly become unstable when China experiences an economic downturn. To mitigate these risks and clarify its geopolitical motives, China has turned to addressing nontraditional security issues like climate change. 

Engaging in climate cooperation and distributing clean energy technologies allows China to present itself as a reliable ally, even without immediate economic gains. This approach strengthens its ties with neighboring countries, cultivating a dependence on China’s leadership to navigate the complexities of nontraditional security challenges effectively.

This approach is particularly vivid in climate finance and technical cooperation, exemplified by entities such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund (SRF), which have initiated a range of renewable energy financing programs throughout Asia. In 2019 alone, Chinese investment in solar power projects within the ASEAN region reached $10.4 billion. Despite tensions in the South China Sea, countries like Vietnam and Indonesia have benefited from investments by Chinese clean energy firms

Moreover, China’s efforts to support climate change mitigation in countries like Nauru, whose very existence is threatened by climate change, highlight its strategic use of climate diplomacy to cultivate potential allies. This comprehensive strategy not only bolsters China’s influence in the region but also underscores the significance of climate diplomacy within its foreign policy framework.