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China Splits on Climate Leadership as Trump Trade War Deepens

Nearly two years into the Trump administration, and with a U.S.-China trade war accelerating, Greenpeace East Asia climate advisor Li Shuo is cautioning that China’s interest in stepping up as a global environment and climate leader is taking a back seat to more traditional strategic concerns.

With punitive tariffs dominating the headlines, the mood from the Obama-Xi climate honeymoon is certainly long gone,” Li writes for The Diplomat. “These days, Beijing’s policy community is kept busy second-guessing the U.S. president’s next trade move. Increasingly, they worry that the trade tension is merely part of a broader strategy of containing China.”

That concern “is shifting Beijing’s perception of the West as well as its own position in the world. Barely a year has passed since President Xi Jinping proudly declared his vision for China to be a ‘participant, contributor, and leader’ in global environmental affairs. Now, confidence is waning. With its rapid rise directly confronted by the most powerful nation in the world, the mood in Beijing is bleak.”

“Nobody worries about climate politics anymore; all attention is on the political climate,” one climate observer recently noted on Chinese social media.

Behind that statement, the fraught political scene has led to divisions within the Chinese climate and political community, Li reports, with one side pointing to the opportunity to stay engage and position Xi as a champion of multilateralism, and the other advocating a China first policy.

For the conservatives, engagement and commitment are only meaningful when the United States is at the table,” he writes. “Such are the two climate policy camps that are taking shape under the fractious relationship between China and the West. Dangerously, there is not much in between them, and the progressive side risks slowly losing momentum as diplomatic tension takes a heavier toll on the previously upbeat foreign policy strategy.

Li says Xi will be “carefully contemplating these two polar opposite views” in the lead up to the UN Secretary General’s climate summit next year, where heads of state will be asked to present their plans to increase their countries’ climate ambition.

Facing unprecedented international troubles and daunting domestic challenges, China seems to be a wary giant on the global stage—its rapid growth benefited tremendously from the international system established by the West, yet in the absence of strong leadership from Washington, Beijing is not convinced about footing the bill by itself. The result is a country that has already waved goodbye to the old, but is not quite ready to embrace the new.