Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Using Climate Change as a Weapon Will Backfire on China

A central dilemma of US foreign policy today is this: The country that most threatens the American-led global order is also the country whose cooperation is essential to preserving a livable world. That quandary flared anew last week, when China responded to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan by terminating bilateral discussions on climate change and other issues.

In doing so, President Xi Jinping of China is testing US President Joe Biden’s theory that Washington can cooperate with Beijing in some areas while competing sharply with it in others. But Xi’s power politics has its own risks: He may also be courting greater global blowback than he realizes.

From its first days, the Biden team has argued that competition and cooperation are not incompatible. Beijing is “the only competitor” capable of mounting “a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system,” Biden’s interim National Security Strategy stated; America must strengthen its alliances, invest in its underlying strengths, and prevent China from imposing its will on the world.

Yet, the administration contends, Washington must also strive for productive relations on issues where the two countries’ interests align. “We can’t let the disagreements that divide us stop us from moving forward on the priorities that demand we work together,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained in May.

This bifurcated policy aims to emulate one of the more hopeful legacies of the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union collaborated on global health issues and arms control even as they jostled for influence almost everywhere.

It is particularly relevant to climate change, given that China and America are the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gas, and that there is little prospect of meaningfully slowing global warming unless Beijing — which accounts for more than a quarter of overall emissions — goes green far more aggressively than it currently plans. Blinken put it bluntly: “There’s simply no way to solve climate change without China’s leadership.”

Yet compartmentalizing US-China relations has not been easy. Climate change cannot be an “oasis” of cooperation amid “deserts” of competition, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, explained in 2021: America must create the proper atmosphere for environmental diplomacy by softening its policies on Taiwan, Hong Kong and other issues. In effect, China linked climate change to a host of geopolitical problems, demanding payoffs on the latter as the price of progress on the former.

Biden’s team has rightly refused to make these concessions. Its hope is that China’s self-interest will lead it back to climate cooperation once it realizes the US simply won’t play the linkage game. Yet that theory is looking shakier after Pelosi’s visit, which led Beijing to shut down several military and diplomatic channels in addition to suspending the bilateral dialogue on climate.

Xi’s decision reminds us that Beijing takes a dim view of military-to-military ties and diplomatic crisis-management mechanisms, in part because it thinks the US will be less likely to act boldly in the Western Pacific if it worries that any resulting tensions cannot safely be managed. It also threatens to sharpen the trade-offs between two of Biden’s foreign policy priorities.

Xi is surely trying to exacerbate tensions within the US government and the Democratic Party, by pitting climate hawks against China hawks and hoping that the first group will prevail. Yet this maneuver may not work out quite as he intends.

John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, offered this response to China’s climate-talk decision: “Suspending cooperation doesn’t punish the United States — it punishes the world, particularly the developing world.” That’s a risky strategy for China to follow.

A “shoot the hostage” approach to climate change could hurt China’s image in poorer countries it is courting geopolitically. Extreme temperatures are already hurting their economic growth, fueling migration crises and contributing to social, political and even military instability.

A reputation for climate cynicism certainly won’t bolster Beijing’s prestige in Europe, where a warming world is viewed as a near-existential threat in many countries, and China is already paying a price for its wolf-warrior diplomacy and support for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

There’s also an even greater, if perhaps more distant, danger. If Xi convinces the world that offers of cooperation won’t persuade Beijing to get serious about climate change, he could unintentionally give impetus to a more coercive approach, in which advanced democracies increasingly use carbon tariffs and other penalties for noncompliance instead.

It wouldn’t be the first time Xi has scored a diplomatic own goal. One of the defining characteristics of his foreign policy has been a remarkable capacity for convincing countries on multiple continents that China’s power must be checked. Amid the current crisis, Beijing’s military intimidation hasn’t bent Taiwan — but it has alarmed Japan and other countries in the Western Pacific.

In the near term, Beijing’s climate coercion may succeed in throwing the Biden administration off balance. Over the longer term, it could prove more damaging to China itself.