Paris climate summit 2015

Can China fill leadership void left by Trump?

American withdrawal from Paris climate accord presents opportunities and challenges

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2017, 8:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2017, 10:04pm

Will China fill the global leadership void left by United States?

That’s a question being asked by many foreign policy analysts, who agree that US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a key climate change accord has created such a void.

“Now America under Trump might be shirking its responsibilities, does that mean China has the willingness and capabilities to take a global leadership role?” asked Professor Xiaoyu Pu, a political scientist at the University of Nevada Reno.

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On the one hand, China might view it as an opportunity to enhance its international status, he said, “however, it is more of a challenge”.

Pu said China might not be ready to take the lead on the global stage because higher status would be accompanied by more responsibilities.

“China must carefully calculate the trade-off between status and responsibilities as well as competing expectations between domestic and international audiences,” he said.

Most analysts agree that Trump’s decision will damage the credibility of the world’s sole superpower, damage its relationships with key allies and trading partners and cede economic opportunities in clean energy to other nations, and allow China to fill the leadership vacuum on the world stage.

“This shows that Donald Trump has completely abrogated US leadership on key issues to the world’s future to China,” said Professor David Zweig, director of the Centre on China’s Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

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Professor Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist at Cornell University, described Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, an international accord reached in 2015, as “a symbolic but important abdication of global leadership and a diplomatic gift to China, where climate change and the environment are recognised as serious concerns that responsible nations must address”.

Under the accord, the US agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025 as part of international efforts to reduce global warming, but Trump viewed it as a threat to the US coal industry and American jobs.

China overtook the US as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2007. Under the accord, it aims to reduce its carbon emissions from 2030 and get a fifth of its energy from non-fossil sources by that year.

Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change who led negotiations on the Paris accord, said the blow to America’s international political credibility from Trump’s decision could not be underestimated.

“When you have a head of a state who sounds odd in front of the cameras of the world and makes statements that are factually so incorrect, both from a legal perspective as well as the factual perspective of numbers, it really is a serious blow,” Figueres said.

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In contrast to the US retreat, China has reaffirmed its commitment, with President Xi Jinping calling the Paris Agreement “a hard-won achievement” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. China has also stepped up efforts to close coal-fired power plants and ramped up the use of renewable energy. The State Council, China’s cabinet, has just halted the construction of 103 new coal-fired power plants, and announced plans to pour more than US$360 billion into renewable energy by the end of the decade.

Analysts said Trump’s announcement on Thursday represented a voluntary US retreat from leadership on the one issue that unified its European allies, its rising competitors in the Asia-Pacific region, and even some of its adversaries, including North Korea and Iran.

Trump has suggested the US withdraw from the international stage on everything from setting the rules for investment, trade and environmental standards, giving Beijing many chances to expand its influence. The US withdrawal would lead more countries to regard China’s leadership on global affairs more favourably and support Beijing’s initiatives, analysts said.

They pointed out that a number of Chinese initiatives had been well received internationally, including its hosting of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation last month, which gave its infrastructure and trade initiative a boost. Other examples were its launching of the US$40 billion Silk Road Fund in 2013, the Beijing-based, US$100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in October 2014 and the Shanghai-based, US$50 billion New Development Bank in July 2015.

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Analysts also said Trump’s decision would help promote and strengthen China’s relations with the America’s main allies in Europe and elsewhere. Some said it was perhaps the greatest strategic gift to China, which was eager to fill the void Washington was leaving around the world due to Trump’s isolationist diplomacy and protectionist trade policy.

“First on security and now on climate, Europeans find themselves moving away from their historic partner, the US, and working with a China that remains committed to fight climate change,” Zweig said.

At a Nato summit in Brussels last month, Trump left leaders uncertain about America’s commitment to come to Europe’s defence, leading German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say Europeans could not rely on others. Underlining the shifting geopolitical relationships, Germany, France, Italy and many other European Union members joined China in condemning Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord and refuting his suggestion it could be renegotiated. However, their joint efforts to show a common front on climate change stumbled on Friday when top EU officials and visiting Premier Li Keqiang failed to produce an expected statement on climate change due to their differences on trade.

Additional reporting by Lu Zhenhua