Taiwan crisis: Frozen US-China cooperation presents new hitch for global warming

The unraveling relationship comes not long after China and the United States announced a surprise agreement to strengthen climate action at the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021.

Published: 06th August 2022 10:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th August 2022 10:22 AM   |  A+A-

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UNITED NATIONS: Beijing is freezing its cooperation with Washington on global warming, but experts are hoping that, for the sake of humanity, the cold spell between the world's two largest emitters is only temporary.

The unraveling relationship comes not long after China and the United States announced a surprise agreement to strengthen climate action at the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021.

US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan this week, however, has prompted Beijing to end cooperation with the United States on several key issues.

"It's obviously worrying and raises concerns," Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the E3G think tank told AFP.

It's "impossible to address the climate emergency if the world's number one and number two economies and number one and number two emitters are not taking action," he said. "And it's always preferable that they do that in a collaborative way."

Cooperation between the two countries is essential on all of the world's "most pressing problems," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' press secretary told reporters on Friday.

Above all, China's announcement raises questions, including what the consequences will be for the COP27 climate conference in Egypt in November.

"What are the conditions to re-open dialogues? Are these conditions climate or geopolitical?" Greenpeace's Li Shuo asked on Twitter.

"Is this a tactical move or is it a longer term strategic move?" questioned Meyer. "Is China saying the cooperation is impossible as long as there are tensions between the US and China?"

- 'Total disaster' -

Earth's temperature has risen by an average of nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, multiplying heat waves, droughts, floods and storms on all continents.

However, the mercury could rise by 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100 even if countries abide by their commitments, according to UN climate experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Apart from the US-China spat, commitments have already been weakened by the economic crises stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which notably led to the relaunch of coal-fired power stations.

IPCC author Francois Gemenne called China's decision a "total disaster for the climate... comparable to the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement," which aims to limit end-of-century warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels -- and preferably not beyond 1.5 degrees.

Former president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, but his successor Joe Biden returned the country to the accord in 2021.

The temporary US withdrawal has nonetheless been accompanied by backtracking on domestic and foreign climate policy, experts say.

China's announcement, on the other hand, is "certainly not a withdrawal from the world stage on climate issues or a rejection of climate action," David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute's international climate initiative, told AFP.

Mohamed Adow, founder of the Power Shift Africa energy think tank echoed that sentiment, adding that "breaking off diplomacy doesn't mean China is backtracking on its commitments," particularly as, "in many respects, China is way ahead of the US when it comes to action on climate change."

Biden has pledged to cut US emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

But his ambitions have been thwarted by failure to push green energy projects and climate initiatives through Congress, although some progress has been made in recent days.

For its part, China, which is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases in absolute value but far behind the US in emissions per capita, has committed to reaching peak emissions in 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060.

Meanwhile, even if it's not cooperating with the United States, "there will be pressure on China from others including the EU, including vulnerable countries," Meyer said.

US-China relations risk long, deep freeze over Taiwan: Experts

The scale of China's military and political response to a visit to Taiwan by the top US lawmaker suggests the latest downturn in relations between the two superpowers could be deep and long-lasting, analysts say.

Despite the White House's best efforts to downplay the visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Beijing ordered large scale naval and air force exercises around the island, fired 11 ballistic missiles in nearby waters, and suspended cooperation with Washington on military relations, climate change and law enforcement.

President Joe Biden's administration denied there was any crisis, but experts say the tensions over Taiwan have risen to their highest level in nearly 30 years with an elevated risk of military conflict.

"The relationship is in a very bad place right now" said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.

Glaser called Pelosi's trip ill-timed and said the consequences are still not fully known.

But the suspension Friday of bilateral military and maritime dialogue while China continues its military exercises was "particularly worrisome," she said.

"We don't know what else they will do," she said. "We just don't know if this is just a temporary thing."

- 'Provocative' military exercises -

The White House on Friday rejected Beijing's call for Washington to defuse the situation, having already labeled China's actions as "manufactured."

"The Chinese can go a long way to taking the tensions down simply by stopping these provocative military exercises and ending the rhetoric," said spokesman John Kirby.

On Thursday he said that China was seeking to alter the decades-old situation in which Taiwan was permitted to grow into a prosperous, self-ruled island supported by the United States even as Beijing adamantly claimed it as a part of China.

"We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side," Kirby said.

John Culver, a former CIA Asia analyst, said in a discussion Thursday hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that China's main purpose with its military exercises was to change that status quo.

"I think that this is the new normal," Culver said.

"The Chinese want to show... that a line has been crossed by the speaker's visit."

Beijing's next steps are unknown, but if it persists with or widens military exercises, or starts flying aircraft over Taiwan, "then that raises this definition of a new normal."

China has at its disposal a "spectrum of diplomatic, economic, information and cyber (fields) in which to alter the status quo," he said, adding that the changes could be significant "for the longer-term trajectory" of cross-strait and US relations.

- Prolonged tension -

But others say that, as in the previous 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, when both China and the US made strong shows of military muscle,  the current tensions could fade over time.

Timothy Heath, a defense researcher at the RAND Corp, said Beijing has more to lose by altering the current political balance.

"We are very likely headed to a period of prolonged tension," said Heath.

"But there is a limit to how much Beijing I think is willing to risk a serious rupture in relations with the US over Taiwan."

China's President Xi Jinping "doesn't really want war with us."

Prior to this week's crisis, he noted, both sides had repeatedly signaled that they wanted to tamp down the rhetoric. China had only mildly complained about visits to Taiwan by other US officials.

But, because of her rank, Beijing sought to send a strong message about Pelosi's visit, he said.

"It could not be a simple repeat of the same old (military) exercise they do every year," Heath said.

Ultimately, Chinese forces did not shoot at anyone, and neither side recalled its ambassador, which might have signaled a deeper rupture.

- Power signal -

American University Professor Joseph Torigian said Beijing's message was meant to signal that China can alter the power balance in the region if it chooses.

"The Chinese seriously believe that the United States has not been respecting their interests on the Taiwan issue," he told AFP.

"By taking steps they haven't previously, (China) is signaling that they can react by changing the status quo as well," he said.

But it is not clear that's what they want.

As long as China "can tell itself a story that the long-term indicators are in Beijing's favor, they can push the issue further down the line and not risk war," Torigian said.

Risking war, he added, "would have unpredictable and dangerous implications for the CCP."


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