How the U.S. can win back China’s trust on climate change and other key areas
By Andy Mok  ·  2023-07-26  ·   Source: China Focus

Trust is like a sturdy rope, holding the complex relationship between nations. However, the rope of trust between the United States and China has been significantly frayed, with every strand representing various issues such as trade, technology, human rights, and regional security. The U.S.’s Silicon blockade against China, likened to an “act of war” by the New York Times, has been a sharp blade cutting through this rope. In the midst of this tension, the U.S. paradoxically extends a hand, seeking China’s cooperation on climate change—a global priority and a vital national interest. This contradiction presents China with a dilemma: to grasp the extended hand while remaining wary of the intentions behind it. As U.S. special envoy for climate, John Kerry, visits Beijing, he is faced with the task of mending the frayed rope of trust and using climate change cooperation as the thread to begin this intricate task.

The common challenge: climate crisis as a thread of unity

The global climate crisis, a common challenge for humanity, is a strong thread that can help mend the frayed rope. According to the Global Carbon Project, the U.S. and China together contributed to over 40 percent of global CO2 emissions in 2019. This shared responsibility to the world, akin to two climbers roped together on a treacherous mountain, should drive them to realize that their shared interest in addressing climate change outweighs their geopolitical differences and disputes. A precedent for such cooperation can be seen in the 2014 U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. This momentous event was a step towards weaving back the rope, playing a key role in cultivating the ground for the Paris Agreement.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang meets with U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Jul. 18, 2023. (Photo/Xinhua)

Climate policy: weaving consistency and sincerity into the rope

For the rope of trust to regain its strength, the U.S. must ensure that the threads of sincerity and consistency are well-intertwined. Climate change should not be treated as a blade that might cut the rope but as a tool to repair it. The inconsistency shown by the U.S.—signified by its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement under the Trump administration and then its reentry under the Biden administration—has frayed the rope further, affecting China’s trust. In contrast, countries like Germany have demonstrated a consistent commitment to their climate policies, showing how a well-woven rope of trust can support sustained climate action and international trust.

Building trust through climate cooperation: mending the rope

Climate cooperation can serve as the needle that mends the frayed rope between the U.S. and China. By demonstrating its commitment to climate action, the U.S. can show China that it is a trustworthy partner, capable of weaving back the rope of trust. This climate cooperation can create more opportunities for constructive engagement on other issues of common concern. A compelling example of this can be seen in the collaboration between the U.S. and China in the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the Ozone layer, which showcases how climate cooperation can stitch trust and improve relationships.

The journey forward: climbing together

As the U.S. takes on the task of rebuilding trust with China, it must be ready to climb a steep path. The rope of trust, once frayed, cannot be mended overnight. It will require the steady hand of patience, the light of transparency, and the determination to keep climbing even when the slope is steep. The U.S. must show its readiness not only to secure its end of the rope but also to ensure that China feels secure at its end. This commitment to climb together, despite the adversities, will be a significant step towards rebuilding trust.

The tug-of-war: avoiding unnecessary strain

In this journey of rebuilding trust, the U.S. needs to avoid turning the situation into a tug-of-war where climate cooperation becomes a point of contention rather than a common goal. Trust is delicate; yanking the rope could cause it to snap. The U.S. must refrain from using climate change as a pressure point or a bargaining chip. It needs to hold the rope of trust firmly yet respectfully, acknowledging that true cooperation is not about pulling the other towards oneself but about moving forward together.

This aerial photo taken on Jul. 18, 2022 shows a photovoltaic power station in north China’s Tianjin. (Photo/Xinhua)

The thread of goodwill: weaving trustworthiness

The U.S. has the opportunity to weave a strong thread of goodwill into the frayed rope of trust. By demonstrating sincere commitment to climate action and showing respect for China’s position and concerns, the U.S. can show China that it is a partner worth holding onto. Each positive action, each constructive dialogue, and each step towards acknowledging and addressing China’s concerns adds a thread to the rope, making it stronger and capable of withstanding future tensions and disagreements.

The tightrope walk: balancing act of trust and diplomacy

The task of rebuilding trust with China is akin to walking a tightrope. Each step must be measured, each action should be balanced with careful diplomacy. A misstep can lead to a loss of balance, putting the already frayed rope at risk of snapping. But if done correctly, this tightrope walk can lead to a new level of trust and cooperation between the U.S. and China, setting a precedent for other nations.

Conclusion: a stronger rope, a brighter future

In conclusion, mending the frayed rope of trust with China requires the U.S. to undertake a careful, sincere, and patient journey. Each thread woven back into the rope strengthens not just the U.S.-China relationship but also the global fight against climate change. By recognizing the shared responsibility and the common challenges, the U.S. and China can transform climate change from a point of contention into a platform for rebuilding trust. The journey may be arduous, the task may be complex, but the promise of a stronger rope of trust and a brighter, healthier future for our planet makes it a journey worth embarking on. As John Kerry steps onto this tightrope of trust, let us hope he carries with him the threads of sincerity, consistency, and mutual respect to weave a stronger U.S.-China relationship on climate change and beyond.

The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for China and Globalization (CCG).

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