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Paris climate summit 2015

How a little-known chapter in Sino-US cooperation may have helped save the planet

Tom Plate says talks between Li Zhaoxing and Condoleezza Rice 10 years ago, over who should be the next UN secretary general, paved the way for the Paris climate change agreement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, 11:53am

On occasions when China and the United States do manage to get together – landing and working on the same side of an issue (if not lovingly, arm in arm) – the result can seem a touch transformative. Conversely, when they cannot get together (quarrelling couple syndrome), the fallout can be alarming.

But for this week, at least, we shelve apocalypse instincts and mull over a couple-reconciliation scenario. Our story will go back 10 years – and then intimately connect with the present – thanks to China-US get-togetherness. And to push the believability of the loving metaphor even further, the linkage involves the two most powerful members of the UN Security Council working with the UN secretary general in New York.

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The denouement came last week with the sweeping and promising Paris climate control protocol – a necessary first step in meeting the fearsome global-overheating challenge. Not only did 175-plus nations put pen to the protocol’s papyrus, but also – and more to the point – the Beijing-Washington odd couple led the political parade for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, put together in Paris in December.

These titanic economies dump down on us 40 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, for which both presidents Xi Jinping (習近平) and Barack Obama should be ashamed. In a sense, thankfully, they are, and last month signalled their intent to sign the Paris Accord, thus raising the UN-driven effort from the dead after the deeply unsettling climate-control negotiation collapse in Copenhagen in 2009.

It is true the new deal is but preliminary in the sense that the teenager is preliminary to the adult: further time will be needed for commitments to be actually honoured, to determine whether Paris will grow into a true unique historic achievement, or revert to some horrid teenage sequel (Copenhagen II?).

This week, I vote for the former and ask you to offer a rare standing ovation for Xi and Obama.

The irrefutable fact of current geopolitics is that Chinese-US concordance offers the greatest potential transnational force for good (or evil) on this planet. When Beijing and Washington can get together, and then can get it together, the effect can be stunning. To add to the background of this much-headlined Paris accord, we recount a quiet event 10 years ago in New York about which much less is known. It was a meeting between Condoleezza Rice and Li Zhaoxing in the US ambassador’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, there to exchange views on the tricky selection of a successor to Kofi Annan.

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The outgoing UN secretary general had been media-genic, even charismatic, but he also had been immensely capable of irritating the permanent members of the Security Council, especially Washington and Beijing. The two foreign ministers quickly agreed they did not want to have to go though any more diva-drama, and when Rice brought up the candidacy of the low-key but well-regarded foreign minister of South Korea, who by then had straightforwardly declared for the job, Li’s face brightened – even though Ban Ki-moon’s South Korea was a key US strategic ally, a place where tens of thousands of US military were stationed, all allegedly because of North Korea. But the often in-an-airplane foreign minister Ban had made enough trips to the foreign ministry’s gigantic headquarters in Beijing’s Chaoyang District to make friends and influence very important people that he had become a regular, welcome and convivial face.

At the UN headquarters in New York, when China and the US agree on something of this nature – sensitive, difficult – the news tends to whip through the corridors faster than morning coffee carts. And the immediate reaction is usually relief: so when Beijing and Washington shook hands over Ban’s ambitious candidacy, that was pretty much the end of the search process.

It is fair to generalise and say that classic Asian diplomatic style does not prioritise flamboyance. And while hammered relentlessly by the charisma-obsessed Western media during the first year or two on the job, in time Ban has shown himself to be a cunning choice. Careful by nature, discreet to a fault, but goal-oriented to the specific and achievable, the South Korean career diplomat committed his entire tenure to climate harm-reduction as his first priority.

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He had other worthy goals – women at the UN, in particular– but the climate issue remained pre-eminent and he could never get it out of his head. After the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, he was dispirited almost to the point of severe depression. Yet his face hid the pain and anguish, and he pushed on, retreating to no safe harbour in the storm. Critics of the low-key Asian style can say what they want, but there is no quit in this honourable Korean’s DNA.

When New York and Paris were conjoined last week, the convergence came about in part because of Ban – and thus because Rice and Li had worked together in that quiet 2006 meeting to make such a solid choice. Said the exultant UN secretary general last week: “Paris will shape the lives of all future generations in a profound way – it is their future that is at stake.” Referring to the planet’s record of ever-hotter temperatures, he added: “We are in a race against time.” If so, no one can say of Ban that, on this issue at least, he has been wasting his. Still, without that Chinese-US cooperation, there would be no secretary general Ban, and no Paris climate agreement. This is a lesser-known chapter in the roller-coaster history of China-US bilateral relations.

Columnist Tom Plate, distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at LMU in Los Angeles, is the author of the Giants of Asia book series, which includes Conversations with Ban Ki-moon. The career American journalist is working on a new book, Searching for Xi Jinping