Observers of the US and China this week may ponder whether a joint call to tackle the climate crisis marks a positive change in their fraught relationship as the two leaders meet for the first time since Joe Biden was sworn into office.

After four years of Donald Trump, the bilateral relationship has reached its lowest ebb since formal ties were established in January 1979. In both capitals, fear of a “new cold war” is on the rise. Many highlight growing competition, and the opposing nature of the two countries’ political systems.

Biden has so-far shown no sign of changing course on his China policy. Compared with his predecessor his tone may appear more discreet, but the war of words between top American and Chinese diplomats last month in Alaska offered a glimpse at the tensions beneath the surface. This may be a preview of what’s to come in the years ahead.

Yet the US and China issued a joint pledge following the US climate envoy, John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai last week. China’s president, Xi Jinping, will attend a US-led climate change summit on Thursday at Biden’s invitation, leaving observers of the bilateral relationship with much to interpret and decode.

Washington and Beijing deem climate change as an area where their divergent interests overlap. In the US, a recent Asia Society Policy Institute and Data for Progress survey found six in 10 Americans wanted Biden to cooperate with China on climate change. It’s difficult to capture public opinion in China, but consistent research since Beijing joined the Paris accord in 2016 shows growing awareness of the issue and support for action, and the government plays an important role in it.

“It’s certainly a good starting point in a very long process of the improvement of the relations,” says Scott Moore, director of China programmes and strategic initiatives at University of Pennsylvania, who specialises in climate politics. “This meeting would stabilise the relationship from getting worse, but there are other systematic issues between the two yet to be resolved.”

One of these issues is how both sides see the climate crisis in the broader diplomatic relationship. Biden’s three key words in dealing with China are: “compete”, “confront” and “cooperate”. It is unlikely that a single issue – albeit an important one – would alter his team’s overall approach to China.

Beijing has not yet publicly acknowledged confrontation as a way forward, but it treats its competition with Washington as the new normal. “Climate is a first step for further cooperation on issues such as pandemic and infrastructure, but nobody is under the illusion that it will change the nature of the competition,” says Huiyao Wang of the Centre for China and Globalisation, who also advises the Beijing government.

This summit, instead, is a platform on which both leaders can display their moral leadership and pledge their commitment to the global common good. Last week, in a trilateral meeting with German and French leaders, Xi also reiterated his pledge for China’s carbon dioxide emissions to peak by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. And Biden was reportedly planning to announce halving emissions by 2030.

There is much uncertainty in whether these ambitious goals will be achieved. For both the US and China, these targets would mean profound changes at home. “[And] we are not going to solve the climate crisis with the existing technology,” says Moore. “Who gets to have the breakthrough technology – whether it’s China or the US – will also change the geopolitics of the climate issue.” This might create another frontier for the competition, rather than cooperation.

By convening the global summit, the US is trying to reassert its global leadership on climate action. But Beijing does not see Washington as the sole leader in the fight, nor does it want to be lectured by the United States. Its vice-foreign minister, Le Yucheng, said last week that addressing climate change “is not what others ask us to. We are doing so on our own initiative”.

Tellingly, in response to criticism from Washington over China’s efforts to achieve Paris accord goals last week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the US return to the Paris accord “is not the return of the King, rather it’s a truant getting back to class”.


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