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EDITORIAL Undeniable global realities impinge on US-China relations

CHINA and the US produced a surprise when, after two weeks of verbal sparring on climate change, they issued a joint statement which set out an agreement to cut emissions, including measures to reduce methane gas and curb illegal deforestation.

China’s Xie Zhenhua said that the agreement was clear on the need for a concrete and pragmatic regulatory framework and John Kerry – Joe Biden’s point man on climate change – said that the US and China had no shortage of differences, but that on the climate, co-operation between the two states was the only way to get the job done.

The joint statement injected a note of optimism into the Cop26 conference, but not enough to produce a more robust final agreement — not surprising given the baleful efforts of 500 fossil fuel lobbyists.

The pressure for pragmatic policies that this statement reflects arises from the specific conditions in both countries, as well as from the undeniable global realities.

China’s development cannot proceed with a continuous and extensive modernisation of its economy while whoever forms the US government has to take account of the profit-seeking imperatives of the world’s biggest capitalist economy, which has resulted in the degradation of its infrastructure and an unhealthy over-reliance on motor vehicles and fossil fuels.

Those charged with organising Biden’s currently stalled infrastructure improvements might start by looking at China’s leading-edge renewable energy sector, its energy-efficient high-speed railway network and its mass transition to electric motor vehicles.

Each US citizen is responsible for more than 10 times the carbon emissions of the average Chinese citizen. We in Europe have emissions five to 10 times greater than the Chinese. Getting our per capita emissions down to Chinese levels would make a big difference.

The Cop26 declaration has been followed up with Biden and Xi Jinping’s three-hour Zoom call this week. It produced no dramatic announcement but it does signify a recognition that while their essential interests – as both parties see them – remain unchanged, there are separate and joint benefits from maintaining a constructive dialogue.

This theme has been taken up by the Chinese media to suggest that new possibilities exist with the departure of Donald Trump.

For the US these include the boost to its economy that would result from a successful implementation of the deal Trump reached with China, which would see an extra $200 billion in US exports.

If nothing else, this signifies a recognition by the US president that the two economies share a measure of mutual interdependence.

Strip away the rhetoric, and the changing balance of military and diplomatic power is reflected in Biden’s reiteration of the formal US position of support for a “one China” policy while, at the same time, ramping up tension with a major deployment of naval power close to China. 

Britain is complicit in this dangerous piece of theatre, with our own eminently sinkable aircraft carrier and its attendant flotilla floating alongside the US navy.

Nevertheless, there is an element of realpolitik in the relations between big powers which operates at a level different from the formal diplomatic conventions. It depends on a subterranean system of feedback which establishes informal boundaries of influence and mutual interest, and exists at variance with the stuff that fills the airwaves, social media and the newspapers.

On our continent, where the real forces exist which would make a crisis, and possibly an armed encounter, out of the drama being enacted on the Belarus border, something of a corrective to the chatter is provided by the news that Angela Merkel, still Chancellor of Germany, had a long meeting with the Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko.

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