Frictions in U.S.-China Climate Goals

Security disputes may frustrate U.S.-China climate goals.
By Michael Lelyveld
2009.04.06
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BOSTON--The United States and China face obstacles to long-term environmental cooperation because of frequent disputes and disruptions to relations, analysts say.

In the past two months, Washington and Beijing have taken several steps to promote cooperation on curbing emissions that cause global warming, backed by diplomatic efforts and independent groups.

On Feb. 5, the Asia Society and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change issued a report calling on both countries to collaborate on cutting greenhouse gases. During her visit to China on Feb. 21, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took up the call.

"The opportunities for us to work together are unmatched anywhere in the world," said Secretary Clinton after touring a modern gas-fired power plant built with U.S. turbines in Beijing.

And on March 18 in Washington, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace co-hosted a meeting with China's top climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission.

Xie told the meeting that China is "willing to cooperate with the United States" on climate problems.

On April 1 at the G20 meeting in London, Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao agreed to intensify environmental cooperation as part of the new "U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue."

Limited cooperation

But during the same period, a series of incidents have threatened improvements in U.S.-China relations. The frequent frictions may frustrate the long-term commitment that would be needed for joint investments and cooperation on climate change, experts told Radio Free Asia.

"I think it's very difficult for extended cooperation," said Thomas Bellows, political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and editor of the American Journal of Chinese Studies. "The climate change issue may approach China a decade or two down the line."

Although environmentalists urge immediate action, Bellows believes climate cooperation will take a back seat to China's economic and security considerations.

"I see limited cooperation in the future, perhaps toleration of each other, but China is becoming a superpower in Asia," he said.

In recent weeks, relations have been roiled by strong Chinese objections to U.S. reports on human rights and China's growing military power.

The annual reports, which are required by Congress, routinely prompt charges of interference in China's internal affairs.

China's reactions this year may have been sharpened by concern over the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule and the exile of the Dalai Lama. But security disputes have also raised U.S. concerns.

On March 8, the two nations quarreled over a confrontation between Chinese boats and the U.S. Navy surveillance ship Impeccable in waters 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Hainan Island. China claims sovereign rights over the area, which the United States regards as international.

Troubling reports

On March 25, the Pentagon released its annual report of China's military power, citing its "emerging local sea-denial capabilities" and "long-range anti-access systems" in case of conflict over Taiwan. China's Foreign Ministry termed the report "a gross distortion of the facts."

As in previous reports, the Pentagon also noted China's ability to deploy "disruptive military technologies" and "cyber warfare."

The conclusion appeared to gain support on March 28, when a group of Canadian researchers announced findings on a spyware network based in China that allegedly tapped into computers in 103 countries, including offices of Dalai Lama supporters.

On March 31, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang dismissed the report by the University of Toronto's Munk Center for International Studies as "lies."

The range and frequency of disputes could make it hard to craft cooperation on an issue such as climate change, which would require technology transfer, said Adam Segal, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

"There's a real risk that, a year from now, all these underlying conflicts between the United States and China ... will engulf all of the general goodwill that exists on both sides," he said.

Segal said the administration of President Barack Obama has made clear that it wants to improve relations, and the Chinese government has indicated willingness to reciprocate. But the numerous disputes create a background of static that could drown out the message.

"It's not clear to me that the United States and China can come up with some type of grand bargain that addresses all these issues," Segal said.

"Once we get past the summits and the meetings, once we have to deal with the specifics about ... technology transfer, then it's going to be very difficult for the United States and China to move forward."

Bellows said the cyber-spying concern by itself is a major problem for the United States.

"Electronic espionage is a major issue that has to be confronted," he said. "We continually run into that both in terms of technology transfer and also with regard to national security issues. They are bumps in the road when people talk about them but they are very, very serious and ongoing," he said.


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