As delegates from nearly 200 countries gather today in Cancun, Mexico, for the year's biggest UN conference tackling global warming, international climate negotiations appear to be at one of the lowest points in their 20-year history. The discord and widespread pessimism that have shrouded the climate talks over the past year continue to hover over the Caribbean beach resort, with a new, legally binding pact on carbon emission cuts - something negotiators have been working towards for the past five years - remaining far out of sight. With memories of last year's Copenhagen debacle still raw and mistrust high, top international players have sought to play down expectations in the lead-up to Cancun, saying they are not aiming for a binding treaty that would rein in global warming at all. Instead, they say they are looking for smaller, incremental progress this year as a stepping stone towards reaching a new deal next year or in 2012, when the first commitment period of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol expires. But with rifts between industrialised nations and their developing counterparts showing little sign of healing soon and China and the United States, the world's top carbon emitters, still wrangling over contentious issues such as mitigation targets and transparency, even the prospects for modest progress in Cancun have been thrown into doubt. China has continued to put on a brave face, saying it is still looking forward to substantial progress in Cancun, which Beijing hopes could get the long deadlocked climate talks back on track and pave the way for the hammering out of a binding successor to the Kyoto pact in South Africa next year. 'Basically we hope to see positive results from the Cancun meeting, as we must achieve some progress and rebuild trust, and we are capable of making it happen,' said Li Gao , a senior negotiator on climate change from the National Development and Reform Commission. Analysts say Li's upbeat remarks as well as indications by top mainland climate officials last week about possible Chinese concessions on the contentious emission transparency issue have underscored Beijing's interest in keeping the negotiations on the right track under the leadership of the UN and defending the existing Kyoto pact. China, the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, has been exempted from mandatory carbon cuts under the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' enshrined in the pact, which ensures that rich nations bear the bulk of the burden for cutting carbon emissions. As Li himself put it, a lack of progress in Cancun will inevitably fuel distrust towards the UN-led climate negotiation regime and its consensus-based decision-making process, which has been reviled after the disappointing outcome of last year's Copenhagen summit. The US, EU members and other rich nations such as Japan and Australia have made it clear that the lack of willingness among top carbon emitters to provide the crucial leadership needed for a breakthrough has made the UN-led negotiation regime increasingly irrelevant. While they have suggested world powers should set up a new mechanism to decide climate issues, replacing the UN process, China has reaffirmed its support for the world body. China hosted a formal round of climate talks in Tianjin last month for the first time in 20 years of international negotiations on the topic in a bid to help recover momentum lost after Copenhagen. Analysts said the success of the Tianjin talks had strengthened Beijing's role as a leader of the developing bloc and repaired the country's image after being seen as the culprit behind the Copenhagen debacle. Although the world, and especially the top negotiating parties, cannot afford another setback at Cancun, analysts say major players are unlikely to budge on the key issues of contention that stymied stronger agreement at Copenhagen, or reconcile glaring differences between developed countries and developing nations. In short, while it looks as if there will not be another crushing failure at Cancun, negotiators are not expected to solve any of the major deadlocked issues that their leaders failed to address last year or to avoid the chaos and posturing that disrupted the Copenhagen talks. 'The failed Copenhagen talks have laid bare differences among top players, and intensified their disputes and blame game,' said Professor Zou Ji, a climate expert at Beijing's Renmin University and the US-based World Resources Institute, and a former Chinese negotiator. 'The Cancun talks are no more than an intermediate station in the seemingly endless international climate negotiations, and it is worth noting that the process is more important than the outcome, to a certain extent,' Zou said. Pan Jiahua , from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, said the crux of the stalled climate talks was a fair allocation of carbon emission rights in coming decades, and that was something that no country could afford to compromise on. 'China faces tough challenges ahead in climate talks, as we need to defend our right to development and adequate emissions space while presenting an international image as a responsible rising power,' he said. Environmentalists have expressed disappointment about the lack of ambition in the lead-up to the Cancun talks, marked by a failure to agree on a binding pact or even a timetable towards one. 'It is a pity that major players, including China and the US, have tried to avoid key contentious issues, such as mitigation targets and the legal nature of their respective emission cutting effort,' said Yang Ailun , a Greenpeace China campaigner. Analysts said progress was most likely to be made over about US$30 billion of fast-start climate funds that developed nations pledged at Copenhagen to help poor nations cope with global warming from 2010 to 2012. 'It appears to be the only push-button available for the US after the failure of a climate bill in the US Senate,' said another Greenpeace campaigner, Li Yan . While there are concerns over whether the money is sufficient and is 'new and additional' as poor nations requested, China has said it is a priority to set up the climate fund at Cancun - details about where the money is coming from and how to manage the fund can be discussed later. On another contentious issue, technology transfer, Huang Huikang , the Foreign Ministry's special climate representative, accused Western countries of using intellectual property protection as an excuse to reject their obligations under the Kyoto pact to help poor nations with advanced environmentally friendly technology. Huang said the most controversial part of the climate debate lay with the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. 'Several countries have tried to kill the protocol, but for most other countries, the Kyoto pact is not outdated and irrelevant and it will never be outdated,' he said. For China, the risk of deepening divisions within the developing bloc has become another worrying challenge. According to a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences report, splits among developing countries have become increasingly obvious, with the least developed nations and low-lying countries moving in the direction of the US and other rich nations in demanding that emerging economies accept mandatory caps. The NDRC's Li said US inaction had had a negative impact on other negotiating parties, which had begun a race to the bottom rather than seeking to break the deadlock. Negotiators have also voiced their frustration. Li Ting, a senior negotiator from the Foreign Ministry, said she often felt vexed and disheartened by misunderstanding and finger-pointing during the seemingly endless climate squabbles and discord. As part of a public relations offensive begun at the Tianjin talks, which was aimed at rallying support for China and turning up the heat on the US, the NDRC has been discussing China's climate talks position with more than two dozen EU diplomatic missions in Beijing. NDRC officials acknowledge in private that one of the lessons from last year's Copenhagen debacle was their failure to keep mainland media, mostly government-controlled, in the loop about what was happening behind closed doors. For the first time, the authorities have given background briefings in the past week for dozens of mainland reporters covering the climate talks about Beijing's negotiating stance.