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The candidates discuss China

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COMMENTS

18 September 2008 14:09

Guest blogger: Fergus Green recently returned from Washington, where he worked on East Asian security issues at CSIS. He is now a Lowy Institute intern.

Earlier this year, an op-ed by Hugh White provoked a discussion thread on The Interpreter that considered the question of which US Presidential candidate would better manage US relations which China. As Australia’s fundamental interests in both countries would be jeopardised by a deterioration of Sino-US relations, the answer to this question was deemed to be of greatest importance for Australia when assessing the candidates.  

Recently released statements on China by both candidates shed new light on this important debate. In their policy statements, published by the American Chamber of Commerce in China on Monday, both candidates pay deference to China’s meteoric rise, highlight the importance of the bilateral relationship and pledge to work with China to confront challenges and expand opportunities. There are, however, some noteworthy differences in emphasis and approach. 

First on security issues, the two statements are quite different. Strikingly, Obama does not once refer to China’s military build-up (McCain mentions it twice), instead stressing the importance of reducing tensions in North-East Asia, building on improved relations across the Taiwan Strait, and enhancing military-to-military and non-traditional security cooperation with China. Can we read into this that an Obama Administration would seek to downplay the 'military threat' perspective of China’s rise in the interests of greater stability? Curiously, McCain does not mention Taiwan at all. 

On political matters, McCain again appears the more Hawkish of the two, highlighting human rights concerns and China’s support for 'Pariah states', while declaring China’s domestic politics to be 'a legitimate subject of international concern'. Obama, too, refers to these issues, though he does so in a less pejorative tone than does McCain, and not until near the end of his much longer statement. Interestingly, Obama does not demand that China become a 'responsible stakeholder' in the international system – a tired Washington mantra, the meaning and implications of which remain elusive. McCain mentions it twice. 

In regards to the multitude of economic issues that bedevil the relationship, it is Obama who flags the more aggressive approach. Obama’s statement exhorts China to move away from export-oriented growth to an economic growth model based on greater domestic consumption (which would benefit the US current account balance), to adhere to global norms on trade, investment and intellectual property protection, and to increase the value of its currency. Obama concedes, at least, that the US must do more to address its own economic imbalances. McCain mentions these issues in passing but focuses more attention on expanding free trade, engaging in a vigorous defence of the benefits of trade to America and pledging to improve structural adjustment and training for displaced US workers. 

To my mind, the most important aspect of the candidates’ statements lie in the paragraphs on climate change. Why is this so important? Together, China and the US were responsible for nearly half of the world’s CO2 emissions in 2007 and China’s share is projected to increase significantly in coming decades. Without a US-China agreement on deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, there is almost no chance the international community will be able to reduce emissions to levels that will avoid dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system – an outcome that would be devastating to Australia. Given the stakes, it is relieving to note that both candidates have placed cooperation on climate change squarely on their China policy agendas. It is worth quoting and analysing what they had to say on the issue. First, Senator McCain:

Beyond our economic relationship, the US shares other common interests with China that can form the basis of a strong partnership on issues of global concern. In addressing the problem of climate change, for instance, Chinese cooperation will be essential. If we are going to establish meaningful environmental protocols, they must include the two nations — China and India — that have the potential to pollute the air faster, and in greater annual volume, than any nation ever in history. The United States should continue to negotiate in good faith with China and other nations to enact the standards and controls that are in the interest of every nation — whatever their stage of economic development. America can take the lead in offering these developing nations low-carbon technologies that we will all need. Given the environmental challenges so evident in China today, pressing on with uncontrolled carbon emissions is in no one's interest.

Senator Obama:

Climate change is a truly common challenge and a long-term problem that must be addressed now. The United States has done too little on the issue, and I will work with the Congress and the private sector to change that. The United States and China have heavy, if different, responsibilities to meet this vital challenge. For too long, however, each has pointed a finger at the other’s attitudes as an excuse for not itself doing more. That must stop. The climate change challenge demands that the United States and China develop much higher levels of cooperation without delay. We are currently the world’s two largest consumers of oil and the two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses. As the world’s richest developed economy and largest and most dynamic developing country, our cooperation to reduce the threat of climate change can produce models, practices and technologies that will provide impetus to global efforts, including those to reach agreement on a post-Kyoto climate regime.

From these statements, it seems to me that Obama is more likely to succeed in striking an effective deal with Beijing on emissions reductions. First, whereas McCain’s statement frames China’s contribution to the problem of climate change as equal to if not greater than that of America, Obama appears willing to concede that the US must shoulder a greater share of the emissions reduction burden. Obama, in noting the two countries’ 'heavy, if different, responsibilities', implicitly invokes the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' upon which China’s negotiating position (indeed the entire framework of international negotiations) is justifiably premised, for China’s cumulative historical contribution to global emissions and its per capita emissions are only around one quarter and one fifth of those of the US respectively.

The tone of McCain’s statement (that China and India 'have the potential to pollute the air faster, and in greater annual volume, than any nation ever in history') suggests, with tautological emphasis, that he would continue the Bush Administration tactic of making China the scapegoat for US intransigence. By contrast, Obama’s rejection of the finger-pointing dynamic and his appeal to cooperate 'without delay' represents an urgently needed break from the past. 

Nevertheless, I remain pessimistic that the two countries will be capable of reaching an agreement – at least not to the extent that is necessary to avert grave risks of climatic interference. First, there are too many other issues on the bilateral agenda that are likely to crowd out climate change. The candidates’ China statements provide a sense of the range and scale of these sticking points – and these don’t even include thorny issues like Chinese foreign investment in strategic US industries, arms sales to Taiwan and potential disputes over dwindling energy supplies.  

A second and related point is that progress on climate talks with China is likely to be impeded because of the nature and structure of US politics. The military-industrial complex, the Taiwan lobby, big business and labour unions wield far greater power in Washington and in Congress (which would need to approve any climate deal) than the environmental lobby, and popular sentiment in the US tends to be more readily moved by concerns over civil and political rights than by the urgency of addressing climate change. Accordingly, Presidential attention is likely to become biased toward other issues and any attempt by the President to accept 'differentiated responsibilities' in cutting greenhouse emissions will face intense opposition in Washington. 

To borrow Hugh White’s analogy from the strategic context, so great will be the countervailing pressures on the next President that it will probably require a 'Nixonian' act of determination and foresight to strike an effective climate bargain with China. The Old John McCain might have been the best placed of anyone to achieve this daunting task. But if McCain’s campaign is an indication of the way he intends to govern, a President Obama might be our last best hope.

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