President Donald Trump’s vow to pull back from climate-change efforts endangers one of the few areas where China and the U.S. have seen eye-to-eye, exacerbating tensions as he takes on more contentious subjects.
“There is a long history of countries that struggle to get along, using the subject of the environment to continue talking and build good will,” said David Victor, co-chair of the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy, energy security and climate initiative. “This is the equivalent of fathers and sons talking about sports.”
Environment is central to U.S. relations around the globe, especially in China. Walking away from the climate table would threaten a key diplomatic channel, leaving Washington and Beijing with shrinking common ground as Trump hardens U.S. security and economic positions, including withdrawing from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The one-two punch of abandoning climate efforts while tightening screws on other fronts could pose significant diplomatic challenges, said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You have to think that leads to an overall deterioration of the U.S.-China relationship,” he said. “There are not that many positives to offset the negatives.”
President Barack Obama made climate a prominent piece of his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. They appeared together at a 2014 ceremony in Beijing to announce support for the Paris accord and cooperated on agreements cutting emissions from international aviation, refrigerators and air conditioners. The leaders of the world’s two biggest economics jointly touted efforts to promote wind and solar power.
In contrast, Trump has pledged to drop out of the landmark Paris climate accord, cut funding for United Nations climate programs and promote fossil fuels. He’s skeptical of the science behind global warming, famously Tweeting in 2012 that it’s a hoax perpetrated by China to make U.S. manufacturers less competitive.
His administration is already making waves in Asia with comments about trade and China’s presence in the South China Sea. Trump threatened to label China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs on Chinese goods. Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested during a confirmation hearing the U.S. would toughen its stance over China’s island-building efforts in the South China Sea.
Spokesmen for the White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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Still, new U.S. climate policies won’t make or break the relationship, said Scott Harold, associate director of Rand Corp.’s Center for Asia Pacific Policy.
“If things are going in a bad direction, losing cooperation on climate is not going to make things that much worse,” Harold said.
Xi urged Trump to uphold the Paris accord at this month’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, and has pushed to position China as the global leader on clean energy and climate.
Chai Qimin, a director at China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, said Trump may need more cooperation from Beijing if he wants to export more natural gas and increase investments in fossil fuels. The president has little to gain from backing out of the Paris accord.
“The cost of quitting the multilateral agreement is likely to be bigger,” Qimin said.
Environmental issues have long provided rival nations with areas of mutual interests, dating back to the Cold War when NATO members and the Soviet Union reached agreements curbing acid rain. If Trump wants to extract concessions from China on trade and other issues, bashing Beijing on climate issues would be counterproductive, said Melanie Hart, China policy director at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.
Global warming remains a priority for most world leaders. If the U.S. steps back, the diplomatic fallout will extend far beyond China, said David Wasko, director of climate initiatives for the World Resources Institute.
“This is now part of the warp and the weft of international diplomacy,” Wasko said in an interview. “Pulling away will have consequences.”