US-China relations: Climate change is latest area of competition between Biden and Xi


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Relations between the US and China have plummeted rapidly in recent years. But compared with technology, trade, geopolitics, defense and other areas of increasingly intense face-offs, climate change is an issue where decoupling is least likely — and allows most room for agreement, cooperation and potentially even joint leadership on the world stage.

China and the US are the world’s two biggest carbon polluters. Together, they account for almost 45% of global fossil fuel emissions that are warming the atmosphere of our planet, according to the most recently available data. China’s emissions nearly double that of the US, although in per capita terms, an American on average is more than twice as carbon polluting as a Chinese citizen.

At this week’s summit, Biden announced ambitious targets for the US, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below its 2005 emissions levels by 2030. The European Union, Canada and Japan also announced their new targets. Xi, meanwhile, reaffirmed his pledge from last summer, vowing to peak emissions by 2030 and eventually achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Li Shuo, senior climate adviser for environmental group Greenpeace in Beijing, said it’s difficult to compare the emission cut targets set by different countries, because the baselines of reduction are different.

“The most important thing is not how far the promise was made on paper, but how much it can be materialized in reality,” Li said.

During his speech, however, Xi stressed China’s climate goals are a massive undertaking that surpass those made by its richer, more developed counterparts.

“China has committed to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality in a much shorter time span than what might take many developed countries, and that requires extraordinarily hard efforts from China,” Xi told other world leaders.

And when it comes to actual implementation, China’s one-party, top-down political system means it is unaffected by election cycles — unlike the US. In a thinly veiled jab at the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, Xi appeared to underscore this difference, noting that to achieve global carbon neutrality, the world “must maintain continuity, not reverse course easily; and we must honor commitments, not go back on promises.”

The US-led summit is the first such get together for Xi and Biden since Biden took office. Ahead of the event, John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, met with his Chinese counterparts in Shanghai, where the two sides agreed to cooperate to tackle the climate crisis with urgency.

But while climate cooperation has been welcomed by all sides — and is desperately needed from a global perspective — there are concerns such collaboration might not be able to entirely escape the fallout from other areas of this heated bilateral relationship.

As Xi was addressing Biden’s summit, Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times lambasted a bipartisan push by US lawmakers to counter China in areas of human rights, economic competition and technology, accusing them of “creating confrontation (that) will backfire against the US” and urging Washington to “cast aside its hegemonic dream and Cold War mentality.”

“Such a self-contradicting practice that mixes hostility with a cooperative attitude could impact potential China-US cooperation,” the paper warned.

World leaders take part in a virtual climate summit called by US President Joe Biden.

Asia roundup

  • India recorded the highest ever daily rise in Covid-19 cases worldwide since the pandemic began, as hospitals buckle under the weight of the country’s second wave.
  • Japan declared a state of emergency for much of the country due to rising coronavirus cases, with the postponed 2020 Olympics only weeks away.
  • Hope is running thin for the crew of a missing Indonesian submarine, as multiple nations scrambled naval and air assets to search for the vessel.
  • Southeast Asian leaders are preparing to discuss the issue of Myanmar this weekend, in the hopes of reaching a breakthrough to stop the violence that has dogged the country since the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup.
  • The Australian government has canceled a Belt and Road agreement signed by China and the state government of Victoria, escalating trade and diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Canberra.
  • Meanwhile in China, state media reported the country’s military showed off some of the “most advanced air defense systems against aerial threats including stealth airplanes and drones” at an industry show in Nanjing.

Photo of the day

Blow to press freedoms: Hong Kong journalist Bao Choy has won numerous awards for her work, but that didn’t stop her from being convicted Thursday in a ruling widely condemned by media and press freedom groups. Choy was found guilty of violating a road traffic ordinance for accessing a public database in the course of reporting on an attack against pro-democracy protesters by a group of masked assailants in July 2019.

The business of China: Tesla’s headache is getting worse

Tesla’s honeymoon in China is over. At the Shanghai Auto Show this week, Tesla’s booth was overwhelmed with protesters complaining about problems with its cars. Video footage of the incident went viral in China, showing a woman climbing on top of a Tesla car, wearing a T-shirt with the Tesla logo and the words “brake failure.”

A swarm of Chinese internet users rushed to praise her. The electric car company’s first apology — which also appeared to take aim at the protester — irked state media even more.

In an op-ed titled “Tesla blunder,” state-run tabloid Global Times wrote: “China will continue to open up its market to foreign businesses, but that does not mean foreign companies will be offered any privilege. That is also true for Tesla. The company has enjoyed sufficient support and widespread popularity in China but that does not give it the right to treat consumers disrespectfully and arrogantly.”

Tesla later appeared to soften its stance, apologizing to “car owners” — without naming anyone — and vowing to “carry out strict self-examination and self-correction.” (Though in a sign of how messy the controversy has become, some public sentiment has started to shift back toward the carmaker after it reportedly disclosed details of an incident involving a Tesla car driven by one of the protesters.)

Tesla is facing growing challenges in China as the company tries to walk the political tightrope.
Until recently, Tesla was on a tear in China. The country received key support from the government when it opened a massive Gigafactory in Shanghai in 2019, defying rising US-China tensions. And CEO Elon Musk has traditionally been a favorite among Chinese consumers — he famously danced on stage during the debut of the Shanghai-made Model 3.
But that Tesla halo-effect has disappeared. In February, regulators summoned Tesla to discuss the quality of its Shanghai-made vehicles. Then reports came out that China’s military had banned Tesla cars from entering its complexes, because of worries its vehicle cameras could be used for spying. State media, meanwhile, has escalated its criticism of the company.
Tesla’s challenges also come as foreign firms come under increasing pressure from Chinese consumers. H&M, Nike, Adidas and other Western retailers face boycotts in China because of the stand they took against alleged use of forced labor to produce cotton in Xinjiang — a nationalistic frenzy that state-run media has fueled.

The stakes are high for these foreign companies: China accounts for one-fifth of Tesla’s revenue and is its second-largest market after the US. The company is scrambling to regain trust in the market, writing in a Chinese social media post on Tuesday that “we will try our best to learn the lessons.”

Tesla, like other foreign brands, realizes that capitalizing on the world’s second-largest economy means appeasing both the Chinese government and the increasing demand from consumers.

— By Selina Wang

Quoted and noted

“A handful of British MPs cooked up this motion on Xinjiang in disregard of facts and common sense with a view to discrediting and attacking China.”

— China’s embassy in the United Kingdom issued a furious statement Friday in response to the British parliament voting unanimously to declare the ongoing situation in Xinjiang a “genocide.”

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