Courting Beijing in the Name of Climate is Misguided

This month, a few dozen progressive climate groups again raised strident objections to Congress and the Biden administration’s foreign policy approach towards China. In their letter, activists argue efforts to strengthen US economic competitiveness, support longtime Asian allies, and oppose Beijing’s human rights abuses may represent “dangerous” provocations that risk sparking a “new Cold War.” These groups claim global climate action depends on close cooperation between China and the United States, requiring Washington to reverse course and take charge for repairing damaged relations.

Bluntly put, progressives’ misguided call to reconcile with Beijing is not only unnecessary for ambitious climate action but divorced from reality and incapable of producing their imagined partnership.

This climate-motivated push for a reset in US-China relations has drawn sharp criticism for good reason. Multiple commentators have emphasized that top Chinese leaders already see climate change as an urgent priority and hardly require further American preaching as they work to overcome domestic political obstacles. China energy policy analyst Lauri Myllyvirta has pointed out that Beijing leaders don’t see cooperation with the US on climate change to be necessary, politically desirable, or even reliable given their assessment of how Biden-era priorities might shift over the next couple US elections. Rather, a competitive dynamic around climate ambition between Washington and Beijing actually gives climate hawks in both governments greater political leverage to enact bold policies.

But beyond these critiques loom two larger fundamental problems with the progressive call to prioritize US-China climate cooperation.

First, the assessment of China as a singularly critical climate partner ironically fails to grasp the true scale of the clean energy challenge, which even China’s mammoth clean technology sector is by no means guaranteed to keep pace with single-handedly. Second, the warm relationship climate groups desire between Beijing and Washington is wholly unrealistic thanks to disagreements on issues that Chinese leaders see as non-negotiable — especially the human rights and labor advocacy that progressives emphatically attest should remain central in US-China relations.

The energy transition is bigger than China

Climate activists’ designation of Beijing as an essential partner in global climate efforts is in large part a reaction to Chinese clean energy firms’ impressive market share. In decrying “anti-China” policies, climate hawks are expressing anxiety that geopolitical tensions could endanger the flows of affordable raw materials, solar panels, wind turbine parts, and batteries from Chinese producers to the US and the world.

The Chinese cleantech manufacturing sector is certainly substantial. However, no all-powerful celestial referee has declared that Chinese firms have won some arbitrary race to cut solar panel costs, granting them the eternal right to supply cheap solar modules to the rest of the world in perpetuity.

The next few decades will see unprecedented growth in clean energy deployment alongside continued technological advances. In the International Energy Agency’s recent report exploring a route to net-zero global emissions by 2050, the proposed pathway calls for a 20-fold increase in global solar PV capacity and an 11-fold increase in wind capacity by 2050. IPCC modeling scenarios that meet Paris climate targets demonstrate significant acceleration in the deployment rate of clean energy infrastructure over the next 30 years.

It remains far from guaranteed that Chinese manufacturers will succeed in expanding to meet rapidly rising demand, as opposed to American, Korean, or Indian producers. The growth in China’s solar industry itself has provided compelling evidence that first-mover advantages in manufacturing are far from absolute. And Chinese industries may become somewhat less competitive should buyers increasingly prefer polysilicon or rare earth magnets produced without forced labor or dirty coal power.

Furthermore, careful courtesy towards Beijing can provide only dubious protection of Chinese solar and battery exports. Chinese leaders have not hesitated in the past to leverage control of markets and products for nationalistic aims, famously embargoing rare earth metal exports to Japan during a diplomatic dispute. Even if Beijing refrains from such coercion, the unpredictability of China’s foreign relations and territorial disputes could throw wrenches in global supply chains through little fault of Washington’s. Diversification of clean energy manufacturing and raw materials away from China helps insulate these sectors from geopolitical risks.

Outside of the emphasis on the importance of Chinese factories, the broader progressive vision for a joint climate partnership remains incoherent. Proposed ideas often either fail to justify the necessity of close US-China cooperation to produce the desired result or assume greater-than-plausible willingness to cooperate.

For instance, one suggestion involves centering the American and Chinese role in climate, energy, and development financing, despite how such programs could expand just as easily through competition as they could through cooperation. Another idea proposes widespread sharing of intellectual property for clean technologies — likely a non-starter not just for American firms but also likely for Chinese players that can increasingly claim world leadership in clean-tech innovation.

But the receptiveness of Chinese firms to technology sharing initiatives is ultimately immaterial when such ideas for US-China climate cooperation are broadly unpalatable to American publics. Both President Biden’s climate policies and Green New Deal ideas possess a strong potential to win over American stakeholders with messages of green jobs and green growth. In contrast, the implication that US financing and cutting-edge research should flow to manufacturers in China with the privilege to produce and sell cleantech worldwide could scarcely be more politically damaging.

Such measures are neither necessary nor smart politics. Climate progressives are overestimating the dependence of future clean energy efforts on Chinese manufacturers while conceding American — if not global — defeat far too early in an era of clean technology that is only just gaining speed. Environmental groups should refrain from gifting free attack ads to right-wing opponents and stick to the idea that American innovators and workers can and should compete for world leadership in clean energy.

Relationship compatibility issues

The failure of climate progressives to properly contextualize China’s current position as a clean technology leader within the decades-spanning global clean energy transition is somewhat excusable. What’s not is the climate-progressive failure to fully acknowledge the specific tensions at the heart of current US-China relations. Issues regarding human rights and democracy, which progressives rightly insist must continue to be a focal point of US engagement with Beijing, are, in fact, a primary point of contestation in that relationship.

Climate groups emphasizing the importance of continued advocacy on behalf of Uyghur forced laborers or imprisoned Hong Kong dissidents while advocating for a close partnership with the central Chinese government are either bizarrely ignorant of the incompatibility of these two goals or deliberately opting not to acknowledge the obvious conflict between them.

Even public statements recognizing the Chinese government’s intolerance of political opposition or its repressive policies in Xinjiang are labeled by official spokespeople as combative “new Cold War” rhetoric. Nor would Chinese leaders tolerate American “solidarity” with activist, labor, or rights groups in and around China, not when the Communist Party has deemed “civil society” a sensitive term and warns ceaselessly of foreign involvement in domestic political dissent.

For high-profile, official, extensive cooperation between Beijing and Washington on issues like climate change to take place, Chinese policymakers will expect that US counterparts limit themselves to nothing more than the most superficial and symbolic protestations over human rights issues.

Nor are human rights and democratic liberties just a vague and amorphous area of disagreement. Rather, these considerations are irrevocably intertwined with specific focal points that Washington’s China policies revolve around. In their letters and public statements calling for a different approach to US-China policy, climate groups have very notably avoided explicit recommendations on what the US’s ideal stance regarding Taiwan’s status, Uyghur concentration camps, or the erosion of democratic rights in Hong Kong should be.

This likely stems from two reasons. First, acknowledging these fraught individual moral and geopolitical issues makes it obvious that Beijing exerts just as much control over the tone of the US-China relationship as Washington and thus bears much of the responsibility for the current strained atmosphere. Second, recognizing these specific points of tension would require progressives to formulate a much more detailed China policy platform only to confront the reality that the United States has little room to placate Beijing without compromising important commitments to allies and to marginalized peoples in and around China.

Instead, the progressive commitment to human and labor rights in and around China remains framed in general terms only. This ostensibly lights a path towards a win-win-win for relations, climate change, and human rights, when in practice, no concrete policy approach can satisfactorily realize all three aspirations.

The path forward

None of this means hawkishness is the correct alternative. Right-wing assertions that Beijing poses an existential threat to the United States, that China has grandiose designs towards world domination, or that war with China within years is inevitable are simultaneously harmful and incorrect. In a way, both far-left and far-right eagerness to draw parallels with the Cold War are fundamentally misguided, given the major political and economic differences between that era and the interconnected, increasingly multipolar world we live in today.

While progressives are probably correct that a military conflict or serious breakdown of trade between America and China would carry severe implications for climate progress, activists should take heart given leaders in both Beijing and Washington have strong incentives to avoid major economic and political disruptions.

Nevertheless, the recent climate-motivated push to influence the direction of US-China policy deserves rebuke.

A progressive climate movement upholding commitments to equity and justice should support US policies that hold Chinese officials and corporations accountable for complicity in forced labor, environmental pollution, and other harms. If Indigenous communities in lithium-producing regions of northern Chile are not an acceptable sacrifice population in the name of climate action, then neither are Uyghur forced laborers at solar-grade polysilicon factories. If global climate justice requires achieving collective liberation and dismantling inequitable systems, then the Chinese Communist Party should be among the first institutions torn down.

Climate groups claiming to advocate on behalf of “everyday people” in China should perhaps also consult more with Asian and international human rights or pro-democracy movements. In doing so, climate progressives might come to learn that Asian activists have strong opinions of their own regarding what approaches are and aren’t realistic for balancing climate priorities within the US-China relationship.

While progressive groups reflect, President Biden’s administration has already arrived at the correct answer. US policymakers have left the door open for cooperation with Beijing on shared priorities like climate change while offering strong support to Asian allies and to oppressed peoples in and around China. Bipartisan, politically popular efforts are underway to spur both US economic growth and clean technology competitiveness. The more of a key role America plays in the clean energy transition, the more leverage American stakeholders will have for ensuring that global decarbonization takes place in ways that are just, equitable, and environmentally responsible.

As such, one might suggest that progressive environmental organizations have more productive things to do than dabble in China policy.