Analysis from Responsible Statecraft
Ever since President Biden appointed John Kerry as his administration’s representative on climate change, members of the Washington foreign policy establishment, or “sharashka” members, have been writing critical articles about how climate change is important, of course, but it cannot be allowed to in any way dilute US attention or spending on a really important threat: China.
We should read these articles in conjunction with news of Hurricane Ida and, of course, the long string of heat waves, wildfires and droughts in the western US in recent years. After all, national security ultimately means little if it is not connected in some real way to the lives and well-being of ordinary citizens; and it is not China that has killed almost 60 people in the US in recent days, deprived millions of people of electricity and caused incalculable economic damage.
In fact, China hasn’t killed a single American in years. Of course, America hasn’t killed a single Chinese person, while floods in China have killed thousands of Chinese citizens in the same period, and air pollution from burning fossil fuels kills hundreds of thousands of Chinese every year.
In the context of climate change, the strangest issue has been the South China Sea – China’s obsession with building bases on uninhabited reefs and sandbanks, and America’s obsession with the perceived dire threat this poses. Future historians will not know whether to laugh or cry. It will literally not be a problem for them, because climate change will cause these reefs and sandbanks to disappear under the surging waves long ago.
Both the Biden administration and the Chinese government have declared climate change an “existential threat” and a “national priority,” but their overall strategy suggests that they don’t quite grasp the meaning of these phrases. After all, the essence of a priority is that it comes first, which means that by definition something else comes second in importance.
And if climate change is indeed an existential threat to the US, China and modern civilisation as a whole, how can it be placed in the same risk category as limited competition for geopolitical primacy in the Far East? US bases on Guam and Okinawa do not threaten to invade and destroy China; nor can China expel US troops from those bases without a nuclear war. Both sides could well simply leave each other alone, focusing much-needed attention and resources on efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions and build national and international resilience to the effects of climate change.
The Biden administration should also take to heart what Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Mr Kerry during his visit to Beijing this week:
“The American side hopes that climate cooperation can become an ‘oasis’ in China-US relations, but if that ‘oasis’ is surrounded by a desert, sooner or later it too will be empty.”
The United States should learn from the example of how what should have been a limited rivalry with other countries (e.g. with Russia over Ukraine) has led Washington to sever cooperation even in areas where both sides have clear common interests. Again, Mr Wang should apply his words to the Chinese government’s approach to the United States and to the “warrior-wolves” diplomats, whose lack of diplomacy comes close to John Bolton’s lack of diplomacy on a bad day. This “anti-diplomacy” by both US and Chinese diplomats is also unlikely to command the respect of future historians – if there are any.
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