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Copenhagen: The Real China Take-Away

by Elizabeth C. Economy
December 31, 2009

Without an eye-catching climate accord out of Copenhagen, what really grabbed the media spotlight were the behind-the-scenes negotiations and back-door politicking. And at the center of it all was China.

Two very different narratives emerged concerning China’s participation in the climate negotiations: savior versus spoiler. In the savior version–promulgated not surprisingly primarily by the Chinese media–Premier Wen through his leadership and perseverance not only brought hope to dispirited international negotiators but also played the central role in forging consensus at several critical junctures in the negotiations. In the spoiler version–put forward by some delegates from the G-77 and the developed countries–China refused critical compromises on issues such as global 2050 targets and measurement, reporting, and verification, making a meaningful deal impossible.

The truth undoubtedly rests somewhere in between. What is more interesting at this point is to consider a few broader lessons about China’s foreign policy strategy that emerge from the Copenhagen negotiations and what they suggest for U.S.-China relations moving forward.

First, the G-2 is not ready for prime time. This may be an idea before its time or an idea that will never have a time. The Chinese effort to avoid sitting down with President Obama at Copenhagen is the clearest signal yet that Beijing has little real interest in working closely with the United States to solve global challenges, much less in forging a “special” relationship.

Second, China sees its real common interest with other large developing countries such as India, Brazil, and South Africa. Contrary to newly conventional wisdom, this is actually nothing new. For example, China has long worked closely with India to hold global environmental negotiations hostage (such as the Montreal Protocol negotiations in the late 1980s) until it gets exactly what it wants. It has also made common cause with Brazil and South Africa on trade negotiations. We should expect to see more of such political configurations, and perhaps even an effort by Beijing to formalize these relations.

Real leverage on China comes from those countries whose opinion matters to China. In the climate case, for example, the G-77, a group that China purports to represent, held some sway with Beijing. It was only when these countries raised a hue and cry that China relinquished its claim on monies from the global climate fund.

For the United States, all this suggests that Washington’s time may well be better spent cultivating countries whom China uses for cover than in working overtime to find common cause with Beijing. A little more time in Delhi and Brasília may yield more on the China front than banging on the door in Zhongnanhai.

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  • Posted by Caitlin @ Roaming Tales

    >>The truth undoubtedly rests somewhere in between.

    Not necessarily. The truth does not always lie between two extremes. It’s possible that one of the two extremes is correct or that something entirely different is correct. The desire of the average person to be peacemaker and take the middle ground actually propagates a lot of untruth.

    For example, for years tobacco companies said smoking was safe and health campaigners said opposite. The media for a long time gave equal airplay to both sides in the name of fairness, yet as we now know the truth didn’t lie in the middle at all.

    >>A little more time in Delhi and Brasília may yield more on the China front than banging on the door in Zhongnanhai.

    That is a truly excellent point.

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