COP 15 – Shifting Perceptions of Global Power

3 Sep

As the COP-15 meetings draw closer, some observers note that at the end of the day, measureable progress will hinge on the cooperation of two nations – China and the United States. The two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, these powerhouses will ultimately decide the extent of the forward progress made in Copenhagen. Regardless of how desirable it is for two countries to monopolize the debate to such an extent, it is clear that the situation is very much a double-edged sword for climate negotiators.

For long-time observers of the Sino-US relationship, the inability of the US to persuade China to adopt key policy concessions is another sign that the balance of power in Asia may be shifting.

Chinese negotiators are clear that they will enter the COP-15 negotiation with Chinese economic and development priorities at the forefront of their climate platform.

There is little doubt that a failure to compromise could jeopardize the outcomes of the Copenhagen meetings before they begin. UN climate secretary Yvo de Boer summed it up, “If these two countries don’t cooperate further, then we’re not going to get a result.” At the center of the dispute is the commitment level that developing nations must make in reducing GHG emissions, and China has consistently maintained that industrialized countries must shoulder the brunt of the reductions.

With China’s economy rebounding ahead of that of the U.S., growing trade imbalances between the two nations, and a continued need for the US to fund a domestic bailout scheme with borrowed foreign dollars, the negotiating power of the U.S. is arguably diminished.  The COP-15 negotiations may mark a significant change in the perception of the international community about where the seat of global economic power will reside going forward with the outcomes of the COP-15 bearing significance beyond the technical details of any agreement that is reached.  Outcomes will play an important role in reshaping perceptions of power and a “win” by China will signal a decrease in American influence across Asia.

U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern has expressed hope, however, that an “accommodation” can be reached with China.


Asia Society Fellow Simon Tay At the 2009 PSIGCC

Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow Simon Tay indicated at the 2009 PISA Summer Institute on Global Climate Change that China may also be forced into action by the Obama administration. Tay pointed out that American recalcitrance can no longer be used as an excuse for inaction.  Indeed, the world is watching these two nations: are they boxers entering the ring for the ultimate prize of superpower status and regional dominance or will China and the US meet as equals with different national priorities but a shared vision of building a sustainable future and understanding of the mutual sacrifice needed to halt the consequences of climate change?


4 Responses to “COP 15 – Shifting Perceptions of Global Power”

  1. Robert Jacobson September 4, 2009 at 4:14 am #

    This political gamesmanship may come off as clever, but it jeopardizes the success of COP15. Many already believe that the climate change conference is imperiled and may be DOA due to powerplays between China and the US and squabbling among lesser nations. It may be fun for a diplomat to contemplate besting his or her counterparts, but is the momentary satisfaction worth the moral and ethical outrage it requires? Such diplomacy becomes a dastardly act if it comes at the expense of the future well being of billions of people alive now and yet to be born.

  2. Helen Gineris September 8, 2009 at 9:17 pm #

    At GWU’s Elliott School of International Affairs, Ambassador Wu Jianmin spoke today on foreign policy, the changing world, and China-US relations. As this post implies, Ambassador Wu also emphasized that the center of gravity of international relations is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific and according to Wu, this is the most important change in the last 4 centuries, now just in the early stages. Ambassador Wu also stated that the international landscape is increasingly interdependent and facing common challenges, of which climate change was the first to be mentioned and he continued to say no country can meet these challenges alone.

    When asked by an audience member about the upcoming COP-15 meetings, Ambassador Wu stated that Copenhagen is the most international conference in the 21st century and that climate change has the potential to be the most divisive issue right now with developing countries pointing out that developed countries are responsible for the current state of affairs, but developing countries do not want to stop development. Wu states that developed countries “have to be more generous” financially and with technology transfer.

    It seems, however, Wu believes there is a large common ground and many differences between the US and China, but the goal should be to focus on the common ground in order to reach mutually beneficial solutions. Although he did not propose to offer advice to the US Administration in the areas of economics and job growth, he did mention that in the “clean energy area, we [US and China] can cooperate.” The hope is to promote a large scale cooperation in an upcoming clean energy forum. Hopefully, Ambassador Wu’s sentiments that the aim to not let the differences stand in the way of cooperation will ring true in the complex COP-15. As Robert Jacobson mentioned, power plays and squabbles are detrimental to the world’s future well being.

  3. Richard Matthews September 9, 2009 at 12:48 pm #

    We have reason to be optimistic about climate change negotiations. However, there is much work yet to be done if we are to meet the December deadline for a global agreement on a climate change strategy. Many obstacles must be overcome before we can hope for an agreement in Copenhagen. The fact that we have yet to find the formula to finance the fight against climate change is one of the important hurdles that must be addressed. Finding a way to bring all 190 nations onboard is an unprecedented challenge but we are seeing positive signs.


  4. Robert Jacobson September 12, 2009 at 2:42 am #

    I would be glad to learn the reasons we have to be confident. I do not mean this rhetorically or sarcastically. Really, Richard, why do you say that? Many champions for COP15s success including me would be much relieved going into the home stretch to know why success is more likely than not.

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