Hoping for a climate ‘partnership,’ Europe goes soft on China while the U.S. plays hardball

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The EU is proclaiming a “good partnership” with China on climate issues, made smoother by avoiding mention of the country’s human rights record.

It’s not so easy for the U.S., which was slapped down by China last week as it tried to pursue a climate agenda while also denouncing China’s “genocide” against its Uighur Muslim minority.

EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans held a videoconference with Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng Monday — the first in a planned series of high-level meetings between the world’s first and third-largest greenhouse gas polluters. Timmermans did not use the chance to raise concerns about human rights with one of the seven members in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s paramount political body, his spokesperson said.

Instead, the chat was heavy on atmospherics.

Timmermans caught Han up on this year’s plans to roll out the European Green Deal, aiming at the bloc becoming climate neutral by 2050. Han filled in Timmermans on China’s upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan, the first steps of China’s effort to reach net zero emissions by 2060.

After the meeting, Timmermans said the pair had “laid the foundations for a good partnership” that will continue ahead of the COP26 U.N. climate talks in November. Before then, the EU wants China to commit to cutting its emissions faster over the next decade and stop building new coal plants at home and abroad.

Chinese state outlet Xinhua reported that Han wanted to make “climate pragmatic cooperation” central to Beijing’s relationship with the EU.

The EU is treading carefully. In addition to human rights, Timmermans avoided the potentially fraught subject of the EU’s plan to raise a carbon border tariff on imports — something meant to penalize companies producing in regions with laxer climate rules. Privately, some European officials say they hope these climate dialogues can be sealed off from broader trade and foreign policy disputes with Beijing.

Europe has also been accused of sidelining concerns over climate and human rights while pursuing its trade agenda. A recent in-principle investment deal between Beijing and Brussels contained broad but vague climate provisions, with a weak enforcement mechanism.

That hasn’t worked for the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said Wednesday that progress on climate change would not be “traded” against America’s “issues” with China — including intellectual property theft and the military stand-off in the South China Sea.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has called China’s human rights abuses against Muslims in Xinjiang region a genocide, said the U.S. would “pursue the climate agenda” with China even as it confronted the “many issues of concern that we have.”

That’s not happening, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian shot back. No country can expect China’s support “in bilateral and global affairs when they blatantly interfere in China’s domestic affairs and undermine China’s interests,” he said.

There’s a danger to the European approach of treating Beijing softly, warned Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“China is seeing it from a competitive angle,” Oertel said. “If we approach this from a slightly naive, mere climate angle, we will be outsmarted by the Chinese side relatively quickly.”

Nowadays, climate policy is as much about competition as cooperation. The Green Deal, the Five-Year Plan and Biden’s climate agenda lay out visions for the transformation of vast economies and the creation of domestic clean energy industries that will rival each other for dominance.

In the face of China’s “very transactional” approach, said Oertel, the EU should follow Kerry in making climate a non-negotiable aspect of European foreign policy.

That would involve calling China’s bluff. “It is in China’s interest to decarbonize because it’s economically sensible at the moment,” she said. Not to mention the country’s extreme vulnerability to global warming. In China’s Yangtze River Delta, a region of vast economic importance, the sea is rising twice as fast as the global average.

There are signs of China moving. On Saturday, the central government released a scathing report on malpractice in the National Energy Administration. Some observers said it may be the first step in reining in the construction of new coal plants and aligning regional governments with China’s net zero goal.

“If they’re now going to use this to exert pressure on other areas and say, ‘Well, you better not be so loud on Xinjiang and human rights now, because, we can still kill the climate,’” said Oertel. “We have to stop giving them that leverage.”

Kalina Oroschakoff and Stuart Lau contributed reporting.

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