Obama Brings China In from the Cold

A deal on climate change points to a more significant achievement: committing China to world order.

Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Barack Obama of the United States walk at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013
Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Barack Obama of the United States walk at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

China and the United States announced a landmark agreement on curbing climate change on Wednesday. While significant in its own right, the biggest takeaway from the deal might be that the world’s two biggest economies are still able to get thing done in spite of the American “pivot” to Asia and Russia’s own burgeoning relationship with China.

The climate deal, which includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions and a commitment from China to stop pollution from rising after 2030, was announced by Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in Beijing where the leaders had gathered for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The mere fact that China was willing to enter into the agreement is significant, argues the Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi.

Previously, he points out, China went out of its way to assert its independence in anything climate-related.

That approach would usually have led it to announce major goals like these in a clearly unilateral context — even if they were developed in tandem with the United States. Rolling them out together with the United States says that China is increasingly comfortable being seen to act as part of an international effort.

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, shares Levi’s assessment and writes in The Washington Post that two other agreements reached between Obama and Xi are no less important: one to avert clashes between American and Chinese planes and warships in the tense waters off the Chinese coast and another to cut tariffs for technology products.

“For the United States,” he suggests, “the bigger takeaway is the ability to cut such deals with China while still moving forward on the pivot” — the military rebalancing away from the Atlantic area and the Middle East toward the Pacific.

A key part of this strategy has been to make the case that it is possible for the United States to simultaneously deepen cooperation with China and with China’s skittish neighbors in the region. Given the bilateral deals and some forward progress on the Trans Pacific Partnership, it looks like the Obama Administration pulled off that feat.

“This is good news for everyone,” writes The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead, “except perhaps for Vladimir Putin.”

Although he believes China will still do deals with the Russian president — indeed, just this week, it agreed to buy another $400 billion worth of natural gas from Russia over the next three decades — “it is not going to join forces with him in an attack on the foundations of the post-1945 world order again,” according to Mead.

Russia challenged that world order in March when it occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from its former Soviet satellite state, Ukraine. When Western powers responded by imposing economic sanctions on Russia, Putin turned to China for help. But although it was willing to deepen its commercial relations with Russia, China would not join Putin in a more principled stand against the American-dominated world system.

Which is not to say it won’t do so in the future, Mead cautions.

China believes that given peace and quiet in the region, it will continue to grow and that, if it chooses, it can challenge the world order and American primacy at a later, more convenient time when China is stronger and, perhaps, its potential adversaries are weaker.

Obama appears to have at least put off that prospect and perhaps even foiled a Sino-Russian condominium that could have imperiled American preponderance in the world.

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