Can China and the US avoid war?
Can “green diplomacy” prevent the cold war?
The new US President Joe Biden had not even moved into his Oval Office properly because he was already at a historically critical crossroads in the strategic relationship between the US and China.
Should he make the wrong decisions, he could slide into a new cold war with potentially devastating consequences. If, on the other hand, he does everything right, he could lay the foundation for a new age of common growth and prosperity.
Biden knows what advantages are associated with the sustainable strategy of a political and economic dialogue with China - after the conflict-oriented, often unpredictable pace of his predecessor Donald Trump.
In February, just a month after taking office, he ordered a strategic review to assess US policy towards China in terms of defense, technology, intelligence and China's allies in Asia.
This review happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of a major breakthrough that lifted US-China relations from a diplomatic deadlock after 15 years.
Both sides publicly broke the ice at the table tennis world championships in Japan in April 1971. The fact that the US table tennis team was then invited to China as a token of goodwill heralded a phase of constructive engagement.
The rapprochement later known as "ping-pong diplomacy" prompted the US to lift its trade embargo and cleared the way for US President Richard Nixon to visit China in February 1972. Relations normalized and China became in integrated the world economy.
The background to the rapprochement was the Cold War. America feared that China might forge a communist alliance with the Soviet Union, even though the similarities between the two neighbors were in fact dwindling due to border disputes.
High-ranking US politicians sensed the opportunity to further isolate the Soviets and, in return, to lead China into the international community. Ultimately, they concluded that the benefits of dialogue outweighed the price.
They may not have suspected China's rapid economic rise, thanks to the determination of the Chinese authorities, the heedful advice of multinational organizations, and China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, which gave its development a powerful boost.
China is now well on the way to overtaking the US as the world's largest economy in a little over ten years. According to our calculations, China's per capita GDP has increased tenfold over the past 50 years.
The fact that China is developing at an unprecedented pace and is scratching the global dominance of the USA has ushered in a new age of economic and geopolitical rivalry.
Although China's economy is largely capitalist-oriented, the US has grave concerns about the role of the state in the economy and in technological development. It denounces subsidies and limited access to China's markets, what the US sees as unfair economic practices and human rights violations.
China, on the other hand, sees limited access to technology as an attempt by the US to slow down its development. It is understandable that in future negotiations it would be far easier for China to make concessions on creating a level playing field than on issues such as sovereignty and human rights.
These are some of the factors that stand in the way of constructive bilateral dialogue today. The Alaska meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi shows how far the relations have moved away from the once friendly back and forth of ping-pong diplomacy.
One area of mutual interest in which China is most likely to be willing to cooperate is climate change. The country has drawn up a plan to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2060. Anyone who has ever witnessed an “air apocalypse event” in China could see and smell the consequences of environmental pollution. The protection of public health is a political priority, not least to keep civil society together.
Anyone who has ever witnessed an “air apocalypse event” in China could see and smell the consequences environmental pollution can have.
Achieving net zero emissions would mark a turning point in China's energy supply and come at a cost. Previous climate agreements recognized that the cost of reducing pollution is higher for emerging economies than for industrialized countries and that implementation can slow down the development of emerging economies.
By restricting access to technology, the US may hinder China's development and increase its greening costs.
But without China, the world will have little or no chance of achieving the net zero targets enshrined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Accordingly, a compromise would have to include recognizing the costs for China, while at the same time encouraging the country to get its net-zero plans under wraps or even to accelerate implementation. In that sense, the whole world would be of use, and China would have made concessions.
If both sides can agree on a green agenda that bridges some of the most obvious rifts in their respective positions, a more constructive dialogue could be in the end.
At least this could give the US time to subject its relationship with China to a new cost-benefit analysis and set the course for a sustainable strategy for future US administrations.
The US now has to decide which compromises it can live with, but at the same time it has to set its long-term goals and explore what a fruitful future relationship might look like.
Fifty years later, green diplomacy offers the best chance for a new breakthrough in relations between the USA and China, based on the ping-pong model. Perhaps that could be just enough to avert another cold war.
Robert Gilhooly. Senior Emerging Markets Research Economist, Aberdeen Standard Investments
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