Skip to content

Empires Are No Gentlemen

The failures of Sino-American climate diplomacy
President Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping shake hands before a row of Chinese and American flags.

Flooding in Beijing, heatwaves in Paris, air pollution in New York City—climate change events are increasing in frequency and severity around the world. One has the sense that the climate crisis and related mass migrations and geopolitical conflicts will be for our time what World War II was eighty years ago: a moment of extreme peril which may be eventually passed at great cost, with the world remade in its wake. Americans, heirs to a project of world domination which has faltered perhaps irretrievably, look at any problem and assume that we should probably decide upon the solution. Inevitably, the government of the historical biggest carbon emitter has some poor opinions of the biggest current emitter, especially of China’s climate change strategy, although their plan is in some ways more advanced than our own.

The Chinese Communist Party is without doubt profoundly concerned about climate change. Their actions in rapidly rolling out new energy infrastructure, while preparing for worst case scenarios, speak louder than words. When John Kerry visited Beijing in July, hoping to create a new “climate diplomacy,” Xi Jinping vetoed the concept, saying that “the pathway and means for reaching [reduced emissions], and the tempo and intensity, should be and must be determined by ourselves, and never under the sway of others.” While climate agreements buttressed the recent Xi-Biden meeting in California, there was a sense that Chinese leaders were simply taking credit for doing things they planned to do anyway, without modifying their plans for new coal plants. As the United States and China play the blame game while grappling with rolling crises increasing in severity, American progressives are all set for wishful thinking about some vague “cooperation,” to quote Bernie Sanders, whose form we can’t really imagine, while we simultaneously maintain a fatalistic attitude toward emissions which we can scarcely control.

Here’s a common progressive wish list: solve climate change without any real change in our lifestyle (OK, we’ll drive a Prius and bike around when we’re in the city), continuously lecture everybody from China to Texas about how wicked they are, and avoid great power conflict. In that context, does climate diplomacy of the kind pursued by Kerry and his Chinese friend Xie Zhenhua—which is to say nothing of Sanders’s “cooperation”—offer any hopes of arresting emissions and limiting warming?

The built environment of the United States came into being relatively recently; only in the 1950s did our autocentric way of life and the political economy of the petrodollar take their current form. Our current vision of the United States—its political configurations, its highways, its standard of living—are not permanent laws but the outcome of the post-World War II boom years of infrastructure building. Without historical precedent at the time, those years resemble nothing so much as China’s “reform and opening” decades in their transformation of a continent of distinct regions into a homogenized national space of gas stations and hamburger stands. Highways are to America as high-speed rail is to China, a one-off infrastructure of national unification and self-discovery, built in a moment of energetic optimism.

Will China create the blueprint for a carbon neutral economy before we do? If so, what will that do to the global order?

The conservative movement understands that carbon neutrality and an end to fossil fuels means an end to “the American way of life.” While the conservatives seem unwilling to confront the reality of the problem of climate change, at least they are in touch with the reality of the American supply chain, based on low-cost labor overseas and underpinned by technologically mediated military domination of the rest of the world that allows for the supersized American carbon footprint—the outsized houses, beef consumption, and automobiles. When pressed, many conservative business elites admit that the energy transition might be necessary but give a host of technical reasons why it cannot go any faster. The executives in America’s plastics and petroleum industries bring technocratic logic to bear on the reasons why decarbonizing is impossible; this logic must be met with material alternatives and concrete plans for our energy supply, agricultural system, and so forth.

It is precisely in this technocratic, corporate expertise brought to bear on engineering problems at scale that China has built a powerful lead in solar, wind, and battery industries. Where the American left tends to parry conservative deeds with pious words (at their most effective, words in regulations which legislate emissions), the socialist-with-Chinese-characteristics “new energy” sector competes with American car companies and energy companies on price. By leveraging domestic economies of scale, subsidies, and other aspects of a statist investment-forward model, Chinese companies have increasingly taken the lead globally.

On the left, we tend to find American life as such unsustainable, but also brutal and tedious. It’s difficult to really believe that a Costco is worth destroying the world for. Enter our relationship with China, to where much of the ugliness of mass production has been outsourced since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, with costs that have only slowly become apparent. In the global village that we imagined, we tended to project the economic geography of the gentrifying American city onto geopolitics. Russia was just a big gas station, somewhere on the way to the airport; China, some overpopulated and grubby factory district in an outer borough, with car parts in the front yard. The United States was something like the financial district and the upscale commuter suburbs simultaneously; we didn’t know or care where the stuff came from, just that it kept coming.

With the advent of geopolitical tensions with China and Russia’s war in Ukraine, the limits of such analogies have become clear. After all, gas stations and factories are pretty important places to the functioning of a modern community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, China has become the global workshop for the energy transition, from solar and wind to electric vehicles. This is true even as China the actual country continues to build coal plants at a ferocious rate. They’re worried that in the worst case, rivers will dry up, preventing the hydropower that gives Sichuan province at least 60 percent of its electricity, which happened last summer. God forbid what eventuality would make the sun stop shining, but if it happens, they’ll have coal plants to keep the AC pumping. The point is, China has all of the factories now. That includes not only the factories that make plastic Christmas trees but also those that make solar panels. We may find Chinese policies “disappointing,” but the Chinese government is unlikely to take American angst as a relevant factor in their policy process.

Last summer’s transitory hopes that China was experiencing an economic crisis were seized upon for their positive climate outcomes. An end to the Chinese real estate boom will massively impact global consumption of steel, concrete, and other significant emitters. China has remade itself from “factory of the world” of the WTO-driven moment to a real estate portfolio in recent years; as the latter is finished as the driving force of the Chinese economy, “green technology” and the energy transition increasingly look like the most plausible replacement. This has led to the country slowly becoming more “socialist,” as state-owned or subsidized energy transition companies rise and private entrepreneurs involved in building concrete-steel housing, or in exporting products made of plastic, decline. If we consider the “economy” to be a collective effort to change the built environment in a way that generates surplus value, China’s movement toward carbon neutrality can probably keep the country working away for a few decades. Driven by American threats and tariffs, Chinese leadership has decided to emphasize “security” and manageability in their food and energy supply—which means importing less from America and gradually ending reliance on exports to America as an economic driver. While war might be unlikely, a world of two parallel trains running on different tracks seems almost certain. Will China create the blueprint for a carbon neutral economy before we do? If so, what will that do to the global order?

Under Obama, the United States and China collaborated on the technology which has led to China’s current shift. Scholars today dream of a shared fund for the greening of developing countries or joint research on fusion and other new energy sources, but such prospects seem impossibly distant. With Kerry as emissary, the U.S. government under the Biden administration has pursued a sort of climate diplomacy in a void. A shared fund to help developing nations like South Africa, with its ongoing collapse of a coal-fueled electrical grid, install low-cost Chinese solar panels seems impossible, for example. The market is doing it by itself, but a lot more slowly than would have happened with concerted support from the rich world. While Kerry didn’t secure a meeting with Xi Jinping, California governor Gavin Newsom, whose late October trip centered around climate technologies and companies like electric vehicle producer BYD, was more successful; the Chinese government might be hedging their bets in case Newsom becomes president in 2028, even though his victory would demand that Sinophobia decrease and climate anxiety increase in the next four years.

Senator Sanders’s proposal that United States and Chinese military budgets be slashed to cooperate on climate issues would inevitably involve American dollars paying for Chinese products—even though many of those solar panels will soon be under tariffs even when sold to American homeowners. (Those shipped by Vietnamese shell companies are also under scrutiny, with the U.S. government adding additional tariffs on them.) In a certain sense, Sanders’s proposal is logical, but its political impracticability is due to a certain detachment from material issues. For example, the fact that the United States is a net energy exporter and China is not, or the fact that ambitions to decarbonize the U.S. transportation network will face domestic contestation—and in fact already are. Witness Trump’s message to striking autoworkers in which he invoked Chinese electric vehicles as the true enemy. Chinese state investment for decades has seen the energy transition as an opportunity for Chinese industrial exports, with the auto industry as central within that logic; if you can’t overcome an incumbent, change the terms of the race.         

U.S. diplomacy toward China proceeds as though from the Chinese proverb 君子之交,淡如水: the conversations of gentlemen are as calm and still as water. But in the CCP, we find an interlocutor that sees America as the problem. Empires are no gentlemen, in any case, and not many of us are feeling calm anymore. As fears and resentments increase along with temperatures, we’re all liable to start doing and saying things that we regret. Calling Xi a “dictator” and the Chinese government “bad folks,” as Biden recently has, can only detract from any collaboration on climate change.

China is sustainable almost by definition. It has sustained itself, as a society conscious of being itself, for millennia already, through floods and droughts and heat waves and massive oscillations of population numbers. While the CCP might seem to be a dramatic rupture from Chinese history, the Chinese state represents itself as heir to this history; even their tendency to self-aggrandizing revisionism is, in a way, traditional for Chinese dynasties. The chief priorities of the current government seem to be food security, energy security, national security, all sorts of security; since the Trump administration, they’ve moved towards a defensive crouch, with Xi regularly talking about storms and waves, among other torrential metaphors. And if the Chinese of the future live in unpleasant conditions? The question betrays unfamiliarity with the way they’ve been living up until now.

Even if we limit the scale of warming, some sort of low-level constant catastrophe seems inevitable.

It’s well-known within China that Xi Jinping lived in extreme poverty during the Cultural Revolution. It attracts little comment because everyone else alive then in China did as well. As climate change’s ill effects become more immediate, the Chinese developmental model increasingly proffers itself globally as a more feasible alternative to the American suburban model: not an adaptation to crisis but an escape from poverty that is a crisis of its own. Lula, the democratic socialist president of Brazil, recently visited BYD; a few months later, a new factory in Brazil was announced and will supply Latin America with electric vehicles. For Americans, the regimented and anonymous style of Chinese “second tier” cities might feel deeply distasteful. But for politicians like Lula, the idea of a society capable of providing adequate housing, food, schooling, and other of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, while at the same time proactively adopting renewable energy sources, is inspirational.

Americans may find these Chinese industrial suburbs unpleasant to contemplate. And yet, we have not yet created any sustainable vision of a mass society in the way that ordinary Chinese cities have, in which the population lives in comparatively tiny apartments and take public transportation. A future China after the energy transition is all too easy to imagine; not only are they installing renewables at an incredible clip but they also have a proven track record of willingness to completely transform their country in every single way. With the end of China’s real estate boom, the green economy has become a positive necessity for China, the latest excuse to make everybody work hard on centrally directed engineering projects for a generation, spinning off GDP growth along the way. In its greening, China has discovered the need for an engineering state making centrally directed investments: the wind farms that one sees on high-speed rail trips across China would be difficult to build in North America, blocked by NIMBYism and endless regulation. 

American and European cities can be a lot more exciting than Chinese suburbs. It’s reasonable that we might not want to trade Brooklyn for Zhangjiakou, an otherwise unremarkable city north of Beijing that used the 2022 Olympics to revamp its green economy and now possesses renewable energy capacity exceeding that of most countries in the world. If not, we’d better come up with a viable alternative soon, one that is sustainable in terms of resources, including human labor. If the answer to our math problem is predicated on endless mass manufacturing at low cost in countries such as China or Vietnam or India, then we can only say that we haven’t solved the problem. The fact is that our political system has not begun to do the simple calculations that widely accepted scientific conclusions imply; not for lack of trying, so much as lack of state capacity to achieve results in the time frame that’s relevant for climate change. Activists have managed to get a watered-down version of the Green New Deal passed in the Inflation Reduction Act, but there’s no sense of the whole of society mobilization that we need. We recently heard a presidential address about America’s two biggest threats: Hamas and Russia. Are these people out of their minds? Large American metropolitan areas are experiencing forty-day heat waves, wildfire smoke, routine flooding, and more. When will our government start paying attention to the direct and immediate threats to American lives and property?

We still react with a sense of astonishment and surprise when entirely predictable crises happen. We understood it intellectually; we’re still coming to terms with it emotionally. What will we do when 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is a reality? How about 2? Insurance companies have figured it out: we’ll have to abandon large swathes of our populated zone. ESG investors such as BlackRock incorporate the predictable outcomes of climate change into their investments. What does our government plan to do when the first, or several, major cities get knocked out? One gets the impression that the analogue to China’s CCP in the West is not our government at all, feckless and irresponsible, but various finance and insurance companies, and possibly the military, which has its own plans for climate catastrophe. They’re the only ones willing to live with the consequences of what’s been happening. Like the Chinese government, they intend to find arbitrage opportunities in the warming world.

As with World War II, whoever unties the knot inherits the kingdom. As the recent expansion of the BRICS grouping shows, many countries want what China has, despite all of the ugly parts of its social model. At this point, even if we limit the scale of warming, some sort of low-level constant catastrophe seems inevitable. Until we figure out an energy transition as well as a plan for adaptability that is specific and detailed (rather than piecemeal state by state initiatives which are largely reactive in nature), it’s a fair assumption that our government will be reactive and ineffective, with a not unlikely outcome being that Chinese power globally increases relative to American power—that is, if they proffer the technological means to solving the energy transition when we are unable to.

If we assume that China’s government, whose decision making is not perfect, prioritizes its own continuing existence as a state governing a society above all else, then their actions seem relatively rational: transform a domestic energy grid to avoid points of vulnerability, as well as create economies of scale to assist Chinese manufacturers of renewable technologies. At the same time, keep coal as a backstop in case of the emergency events that are becoming increasingly common. What is less obvious is what, if anything, Americans can do about it, aside from watching and biting our nails as we stand on the precipice of a vast and destructive historical pattern, somehow still centering our own agency. Currently, we can only think of telling them what to do. This will melt away, at which grim point the best thing that we could do is to secure our own homeland. The Chinese will do the same.