By: Theresa Lou, Columnist
Photo Credit: Asia News
Held from October 14-24, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Party Congress solidified President Xi Jinping’s leadership and set the party’s priorities and goals for the next five years. During his three-hour speech,[i] Xi waxed poetic about China’s great national rejuvenation, which he mentioned 27 times,[ii] and charted Beijing’s course for a new era in which China will “[move] closer to center stage.”[iii] In addition to an emphasis on China’s military modernization and increased assertiveness in its foreign policy, Xi articulated his vision for greater Chinese leadership in global governance moving forward. Yet if Beijing’s climate and trade policies are any indicator, China has demonstrated that it prioritizes its interests above the common good.
China’s rise over recent decades has been impressive. Its people stood up under Mao Zedong’s leadership, grew rich under that of Deng Xiaoping, and became stronger under Xi.[iv] The nation has moved past the days of “hiding and biding,” and, according to Xi, is now a great power that will defend the international order and “community of common destiny.”[v] This comes at a time when, under the Trump administration, the United States is stepping away from the global order it helped build in the wake of World War II. Since assuming office in January 2017, Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, ended US commitment to the Paris climate agreement, and made clear his contempt for the World Trade Organization.
In sharp contrast, Xi has positioned China as the new champion of globalization, seizing leadership of the global climate change agenda, committing billions to its Belt and Road Initiative, and forging a mega-regional trade pact of its own. Such efforts position China as “a new choice for other countries,”[vi] which, at first blush, seems like welcome news. China is the world’s “most influential developing country,”[vii] and its input and support are crucial for combating modern day vexing transnational challenges. But Beijing’s eagerness to lead stems less from altruism than from the benefits it can reap from shaping the international order.
As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter,[viii] China plays a critical role in the success of global climate governance. In response to increased domestic outcry over hazardous air pollution levels,[ix] Beijing has taken significant steps to limit its domestic carbon emissions.[x] But China is also on track to build more than 100 coal plants in developing nations like Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan, the latter two of which currently burn close to no coal.[xi] Pakistan’s climate makes it an ideal candidate for solar power investments, and yet Beijing (the world’s largest solar panel producer) will be spending roughly $15 billion in the next 15 years to build nearly a dozen coal plants in Pakistan.[xii] Beijing’s climate policy stems from its need to ameliorate domestic excess capacity problem threatening the viability of Chinese coal and steel industry and its development banks.[xiii]
Evidence of China’s self-serving leadership can also be found in its efforts to lead global trade. Since the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January 2017, Xi has seized the opportunity to play an even larger role in shaping the rules of the road for trade in the Asia-Pacific and accelerated negotiations of another mega trade deal. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Beijing-led alternative to TPP, is a free-trade agreement negotiated between 16 regional countries that jointly contribute almost 30 percent of global GDP.[xiv] But whereas the TPP includes a host of regulations protecting labor rights and environmental standards, RCEP does not.[xv] Moreover, leaked drafts of RCEP’s negotiation texts on intellectual property and digital trade from October 2015,[xvi] reveal that some proposed provisions “could undermine access to price-lowering generic medicines,”[xvii] thereby endangering millions who could not afford life-saving medicines.
The United States bears much responsibility for ceding global leadership to China. In doing so, it gives Beijing the opportunity to shape and influence the international order on Chinese terms and values. But countries should be wary of allowing the Chinese government to prioritize Beijing’s self interests over global needs through its averred commitment to the “community of common destiny.”[xviii]
[i] 习近平十九大报告全文, DWNews.Com, October 18, 2017, http://news.dwnews.com/china/news/2017-10-18/60018047_all.html. (in chinese)
[ii] Rush Doshi, “Xi Jinping just made it clear where China’s foreign policy is headed,” New York Times, October 25, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/10/25/xi-jinping-just-made-it-clear-where-chinas-foreign-policy-is-headed/.
[iii] Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher, “Xi Jinping’s Marathon Speech: Five Takeaways,” New York Times, October 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/world/asia/china-xi-jinping-party-congress.html.
[iv] Paul Haenle, “What will a powerful Xi mean for the China-US relationship?” CNN Opinion, October 25, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/25/opinions/china-relationship-with-us-opinion/index.html.
[vi] Anthony J. Blinken, “Trump is Ceding Global Leadership to China,” New York Times op-ed, November 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/08/opinion/trump-china-xi-jinping.html.
[vii] Thomas J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), pg. 115.
[viii] Johannes Freidrich, Mengpin Ge, and Andrew Pickens, “This Interactive Chart Explain’s World’s Top 10 Emitters, and How They’ve Changed,” World Resources Institute, April 11, 2017, http://www.wri.org/blog/2017/04/interactive-chart-explains-worlds-top-10-emitters-and-how-theyve-changed.
[ix] Erin McCann, “Life in China, Smothered by Smog,” New York Times, December 22, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/22/world/asia/china-smog-toxic.html.
[x] Warwick J. McKibbin and Weifeng Liu, “China: Ambitious Targets and Policies,” Brookings Institution, July 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/china-mckibbin-1.pdf.”
[xi] Michael Forsythe, “China Cancels 103 Coal Plants, Mindful of Smog and Wasted Capacity,” New York Times, January 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/world/asia/china-coal-power-plants-pollution.html.
[xii] Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio, “Pakistan ramps up coal power with Chinese-backed plants,” Reuters, May 2, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-energy-coal/pakistan-ramps-up-coal-power-with-chinese-backed-plants-idUSKBN17Z019.
[xiii] Sagatom Saha and Theresa Lou, “China’s Coal Problem,” Foreign Affairs, August 4, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-08-04/chinas-coal-problem/.
[xiv] “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership,” Association of Southeast Asian Nations, October 3, 2016, http://asean.org/?static_post=rcep-regional-comprehensive-economic-partnership.
[xv] Sam Cossar-Gilbert, “5 Hidden Costs of the RCEP to People and Planet,” The Diplomat, October 12, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/5-hidden-costs-of-the-rcep-to-people-and-planet/.
[xvi] KEI Staff, “2015 Oct 15 version: RCEP IP Chapter,” Knowledge Ecology International, April 19, 2016, https://www.keionline.org/node/2472.
[xvii] “RCEP: Impact on Access to Medicines,” Medicins Sans Frontieres Access Campaign, https://www.msfaccess.org/sites/default/files/ACCESS_Brief_RCEPTradingAwayHealth_ENG_2016_0.pdf.