The hasty signing of the China-US action plan at last year’s UN climate change conference in Glasgow surprised observers. Equally surprisingly, the ‘double act’ of the two superpowers during the EU-US sponsored ministerial meeting at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh has been a welcome sign for observers and diplomats alike.
On the sidelines of the Biden-Xi presidential meeting in Bali, China’s climate envoy Xi Zhenghua made an unannounced appearance with his US counterpart John Kerry at an event dedicated to reducing methane emissions. Xi’s signal of support for the methane pledge, which has yet to be signed by China, was a clear confirmation of the resumption of formal Sino-US commitments on all areas of climate, cooperation that ended abruptly after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
However, it remains to be seen whether the resumption of formal talks can yield tangible results or translate into concrete, actionable plans. It is particularly early to question whether Beijing and Washington can work together to develop the technologies as well as the regulatory framework seen as essential to mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing global dependence on fossil fuels.
The short answer, unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, is no. Despite their possible agreement to isolate the climate issue from the broader and highly contentious context of bilateral relations, their status as technological rivals, coupled with the importance of technological superiority in energy projection capabilities, will seriously hamper a joint Sino-American approach to climate change.
Geopolitics of climate change and technological innovation
The geopolitics of climate change, or more precisely the geopolitical side effects of a changing climate, can be spoken from three different angels.
First, there is the overarching issue of food and resource security and the prospect of some countries turning their domestic food production capacity into a tool of power.
Second, it is also possible to discuss climate change as a threat multiplier. For example, in places where socio-political tensions are already high or regulatory frameworks for extractive activities are uncertain, climate change could further exacerbate tensions.
A third strategic effect of climate change relates to its unequal impact both between and within countries, whereby winners and losers are likely to develop conflicting perspectives on both reversing and reinforcing the effects of climate change.
On the other hand, the geopolitics of technology and technological innovation can be studied from two points of view: a system-level perspective in which technological innovation is seen as a power amplifier, and a postmodernist or critical lens that highlights how states exercise power. and influence through standardization and/or agenda setting.
Regarding the former, suffice it to say that modern diplomacy and warfare are only possible thanks to the technological advances of the recent past. Whether it’s shuttle diplomacy, digital diplomacy, remotely piloted drones, or the use of virtual reality as a more cost-effective alternative to traditional pilot training regiments, it’s undeniable that both warfare and diplomacy are directly linked to technological advances. . What stands out in this context is that there is a strong technological element in any country’s ability to project power and defend its vital national security interests. As Mark Leonard has said, “power and influence are articulated at the intersection of technology and geopolitics”.
Regarding the latter, it is a well-established observation that he who sets the standards may rule. More precisely, a significant impact can be achieved if the rules of conduct or the parameters of responsible behavior are based on or rooted in its norms and values. So it should come as no surprise that the United States is alarmed by China’s more hands-on approach to agenda-setting in international forums or the rapid expansion of Chinese technology companies into other markets. Washington worries that the more Chinese technology products are used around the world, the easier it will be for China to export its values and dictate the rules of the game.
The link between technological cooperation and environmental cooperation
To understand the connection between technology and climate change, one has to look no further than Beijing and Washington’s own action plans to prevent and overcome the negative consequences of environmental degradation and rapid global warming. Both countries have placed strategic importance on technological innovation and upskilling their labor markets to combat the looming climate crisis and move towards a green economy.
The strategic technologies considered critical to addressing and mitigating the impacts of climate change can be divided into two groups. At one end of the spectrum are technologies that can use so-called clean energy sources such as plants, geothermal heat or the sun. On the other hand, there are technologies that are essential to the energy industry because they can make traditional forms of energy not only cleaner but also more efficient. Specific cases are coal gasification, carbon capture and storage, and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology.
In addition, there are technologies that lie between the two groups mentioned above. One group includes technologies that are necessary both for the environmental safety of material production processes and for increasing the life cycle and efficiency of materials. The other group includes space-related technologies and AI. The effects of climate change can be more fully understood when countries develop the ability to process larger satellite data sets more frequently. Doing so requires advances in satellite technology as well as machine learning to process more data in significantly less time.
Is cooperation possible?
From a global perspective, China and the United States should put aside their strategic differences and seek to maximize cooperation on climate change. This is because the climate crisis is a global threat and therefore requires a global effort to address it. However, the problem today is that the strategic priorities of China and the US do not align. Despite their shared recognition of climate change as an urgent national and global security threat, their national interests in outdoing each other for global supremacy make it difficult for the two to work together to address the climate crisis.
While the prospect of an all-out war between the United States and China remains remote, it is abundantly clear that the two are locked in a technological cold war, as evidenced by their aggressive efforts to disengage. Thanks to what Alex Capri has called techno-nationalism, the behavior of China and the US is best described as “mercantilistic”. This view links a country’s national security, economic competitiveness and socio-political stability to technological development.
Buoyed by impressive economic growth, China is now seeking credit for its governance model, claiming it outperforms Western liberal democracies on a number of key indicators. The United States, on the other hand, is committed to preventing such recognition. Consequently, while Chinese diplomats trumpet the virtues of their model and call on developing countries to follow China’s path, US officials try to counter these efforts by highlighting the regulatory flaws of the Chinese model, such as the lack of respect for human rights and the individual. privacy.
This rivalry should come as no surprise. Ultimately, leadership and continuous innovation in the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution will surely bring significant economic, political and military power. Because of this, both countries have devoted large sums of capital to finance the research and development of such technologies, and in the process have created a zero-sum view of the other’s progress, so that China’s gains are seen as losses for the US and the VP. vice versa. This trend was most evident during Biden’s confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Austin said he would continue his “laser-like focus” on strengthening the United States’ “competitiveness” against China’s increasingly powerful military and described Beijing as the “most significant future threat” to the United States.
However, what makes a strategic split highly unlikely is the fact that Sino-US technology competition is not limited to an innovation race. Rather, it involves a fierce and rapidly intensifying competition to create regulatory frameworks for the development and management of new technologies that pit two completely different value systems against each other. A clear manifestation of this regulatory competition can be seen in China’s Global Data Security Initiative, as well as its recently updated Personal Information Protection Law, which aims to counter the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, and the US proposal to create a G.-7 AI Pact, as well as its Wassenaar Agreement. revival.
Throughout history, nations have sought technological superiority in order to strategically outperform their rivals and exert power and influence beyond their immediate borders. Therefore, the current technological dispute between China and the United States should not be surprising. Nor should their inability to co-invent technologies deemed essential to the fight against climate change and to cooperate in scaling up such technologies. Technological know-how and technology transfer are seen as tools of leverage and influence that China and the US could use to steer other countries into their spheres of influence. This trend could lead to further divisions and the unfortunate return of a Cold War mentality to global politics.
More broadly, the two superpowers are unlikely to be able to separate climate change from the larger strategic context of their bilateral relations simply because the evaluative distance between their governance models has widened as the power gap between them has narrowed. In fact, China made this clear on the eve of Kerry’s trip to Tianjin last year, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected the idea of separating climate from other policy issues.
Technological cooperation to combat climate change would only be possible if Beijing and Washington could establish a high-level committee to regulate their technological rivalry; that is, to establish the ground rules for the eventual consensus that neither would seek to launch a high-tech attack on the other. Until this framework is in place, the prospects for their technological cooperation in other areas, including climate change, will remain elusive.