For all the chit-chat in the U.S. press, when it comes to foreign policy in particular, a President who has lost a congressional majority is anything but a lame duck. The news coming fast-and-furious out of APEC could not be stronger proof of this point.
As we’ve noted on this site, China seems to have been softening its foreign policy approach in recent weeks. Some of the softer talk about Japanese Prime Minister Abe was an early sign that a new turn in Chinese diplomacy might emerge. The release of two U.S. citizens from North Korea may have been another signal that China wanted the regional temperature turned down. Today China ended the guessing game. It seems clear that China is returning to something more like its (very successful) policy under Deng Xiaoping: peaceful rise.
China, at least for now, will try to avoid making waves even as its economy and its power grow. President Xi seems to have agreed with the Chinese analysts who criticized its recent turn to a harsher and more aggressive foreign policy approach. These analysts have argued that China misread the 2008 financial crisis, and acted too fast, too eagerly. The U.S. has more staying power in the region than China grasped at that time, and Japan is more of a factor perhaps than Chinese officials gave it credit for being. China is adjusting its foreign policy in line with existing realities. This is good news for everyone—except perhaps for Vladimir Putin. China will still do deals with him, but it is not going to join forces with him in an attack on the foundations of the post 1945 world order—again, for now anyway.
Presumably this reflects a sense on the part of Xi and his colleagues that defying the frustration and anger of Chinese nationalists, who can’t understand why China’s rising power is unable to remake the Asian order, is preferable to risking the political and economic consequences of an atmosphere of crisis in Asia. However, the thaw, which is very realistic and very welcome, is not the same thing as a permanent agreement or reconciliation. 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. As Sun Tzu puts it, “if your enemy speaks humbly but continues his preparations, he will attack.” China is adopting exactly this posture and its military preparations and modernization will continue unabated.
The headline story—the climate agreement—is a mixed bag. China’s position on carbon agreements has been misunderstood. Chinese officials high and low have zero intention of changing China’s development arc to satisfy global greens. They are, however, deeply concerned about energy policy. They are concerned about the pollution that comes from coal and would like to shift away from coal to other sources. Hence, for example, the two large natural gas deals with Russia. They also want to enhance the energy efficiency of their economy. This is partly about cost competitiveness in a tight international economy—labor costs are rising in China and it is necessary for Chinese production to become cheaper and therefore, among other things, more energy efficient on purely economic grounds.
China also sees its dependence on imported energy as a national security issue. The shift away from coal—however much it clears the air in China’s smog-choked cities—must not be allowed, officials believe, to make China more dependent on imported energy. In the event of a war with the U.S., oil imports would end. Even if the Chinese navy gained the ability to dominate China’s coastal waters, this does not enable China to protect sea lanes from the Middle East. China’s economy needs to become more fuel efficient for security reasons. This deal does not represent a deep change in Chinese policy for the sake of fighting climate change. It represents an intelligent packaging of steps that a smart Chinese government would take even if there were absolutely no problem of climate change or global carbon emissions.
In this sense the deal represents both the potential and the limits of climate diplomacy today. As we’ve often noted on this site, the world is moving away from the high intensity high carbon economy of the industrial age toward a less intense relationship with energy in the information age. And the sudden (hail fracking!) rise in the the availablility of natural gas, the least carbon heavy of the fossil fuels, allows the widespread substitution of natural gas for coal. At the same time, the role of heavy industry in total economic output shrinks as the world moves toward a service- and information-led economy. Put all these things together and economic growth is becoming less dependent on carbon emission and fuel consumption. Given that, it is possible for countries to reduce emissions and sign treaties to reduce emissions so long as they are basically agreeing to go with the flow in the world economy.
But at the same time, these agreements are both limited and unenforceable. The heavy lifting is postponed to the out years and whatever pieces of paper are signed today, politicians in both China and the U.S. will make decisions about energy in 2030 based on the politics of 2030, and they will ignore the documents of 2014 if they have the slightest reason to do so. That will be especially true because, since the U.S. Senate will not have a two thirds majority to ratify the agreement, there will be no legally binding treaty on either side.
Nevertheless, on both the climate deal and the other agreements at the summit, for which both Xi and Obama deserve congratulations, the message is this: the U.S. and China have interests in common. Both have been disturbed by the downhill slide in the politics of the Pacific. That slide was caused by a false Chinese perception that the U.S. had declined and that China had risen to the point where it could push for a big change in the architecture of the Pacific. Thanks in part to the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, thanks in part to the recovery of the U.S. economy, and thanks in part to the strong negative reaction to the new Chinese foreign policy by Japan and its neighbors, China now understands that its calculations about the Pacific balance of power were wrong, and it has pragmatically decided to change course.
All this is very good news, and the Obama administration is entitled to consider this a significant foreign policy success. Hillary Clinton will also be happy about it; the “pivot to Asia” was a big part of her work at the State Department. It has paid off, despite many critics and China experts who told her that it would only lead to more hostility from China, and she is also entitled to a bow and a victory lap.
But it doesn’t end the Game of Thrones and doesn’t change the reality that China is accepting the situation because it has little choice, not because it has bought into the American system the way we would like it to. That much desired, long term buy-in may still come, but the future is unknown, and America will need to keep a close eye on the Pacific for decades to come.