Joe Biden’s China Dilemma: "Save the Planet" or Protect Taiwan?
Is climate change an existential threat, one that overrides all other challenges? Or does an expansionist China pose a grave and growing danger to the strategic interests of the U.S.? Two questions with only one “Yes.” President Trump makes no secret of his views on China. He was one of the first public figures to realize China as an economic threat. He denounces the decision to admit China to the World Trade Organization (WTO), seeing it as a disaster for America, and especially for American workers. And it is not hard to guess where Trump resides on the continuum from climate-change-as-hoax to climate-change-as-existential threat.
By contrast, Joe Biden supported China’s accession to the WTO and has placed all his chips on the opposite end of the climate spectrum from Trump. Campaigning for the Democratic nomination, Biden tweeted his belief that climate change poses an existential threat. Since then, he has committed to implementing the most draconian greenhouse-emissions cuts ever proposed by a serious candidate for the presidency.
Global warming is, well, global. There is no point in cutting America’s carbon dioxide emissions unless the rest of the world follows suit. During his first year in the White House, Barack Obama attempted to get China to sign a treaty that included emissions targets. It ended in the fiasco of the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009. The lesson Obama took away from Copenhagen was that Beijing held the keys to a new global climate compact. To justify the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to sharply cut power generation emissions, there had to be a realistic prospect of a new UN climate treaty—and that meant being friendly to Beijing.
At his first meeting with Obama as China’s new leader in June 2013, President Xi Jinping set out China’s quid pro quo: a new model of major power relations between the two nations, with China being given preeminence as first among equals after the U.S. This led, in November 2014, to the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change, which in turn paved the way for the Paris climate agreement a year later. According to Obama, the U.S.-China climate understanding was “critical” to the success of the Paris agreement.
All this took place at the tail end of a period in which complacency reigned about the China’s rise as a world power. American foreign policy grandees believed that admitting China to the WTO would wean its Communist Party away from dictatorship and repression. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton told General Secretary Jiang Zemin that he did not want to contain China. “The biggest security threat China presents the United States is that you will insist on getting rich the same way we did,” Clinton told China’s leader.
Who believes that today?
In less than 20 years, China’s carbon dioxide emissions increased threefold—but the idea that the biggest threat China poses to America’s national security is from greenhouse gases died this year. China’s abrogation of Hong Kong’s one-country-two-systems settlement, guaranteed by international treaty to 2047, its brutal suppression of dissent there, and its armed clashes with India have transformed perceptions of China from friendly rival to, in the words of Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, “an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities.” America should unambiguously guarantee Taiwan’s security, Haass argues, as what happens in the Taiwan Straits could well decide Asia’s future and enable China to project power across the western Pacific.
But China knows how to play the West. In his UN address this week, Xi gave Biden a helping hand in the presidential election and climate hawks the upper hand over China hawks in a Biden administration. Dressed in artful prose about green revolutions and protecting Mother Earth, Xi said China would now aim to peak it carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve “carbon neutrality” before 2060.
China’s intentions should be judged by what it does, not its rhetoric—especially in an election year. It is not going to follow California’s example and wreck its power grid and its economy. China is building 259 gigawatts of new coal-fired power stations—almost as much as the 266 GW capacity of the U.S. coal fleet. “We should see each other as members of the same family,” Xi told the UN, but not Muslim Uighurs who Xi is subjecting to a “demographic genocide.” China is actively involved in the fight against COVID-19, Xi claims. “We should enhance solidarity and get through this together,” so China bans a World Health Organization team from visiting Wuhan and investigating the source of the virus.
Is China a trustworthy partner? The winner of the election has two choices—take China at its word and pursue the illusion of a cooperative China leading the fight against climate change, or stand firm against Chinese expansionism. He cannot do both.
Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow of the RealClear Foundation and author of THE CLIMATE NOOSE.