Sunday, January 22, 2017

Letting the Chinese lead is not a good thing

The serious press is surprised by the continuing force of the Chinese support for the Paris Agreement, observed this week at Davos, as well as the amount of money they have been putting "where their mouth is".

This doesn't surprise me. It isn't a unipolar world anymore, and hasn't been for a long time. The Chinese government is led by engineers and scientists who respect facts, not by politicians who make the mistake of believing the things they think. They understand climate change and are alarmed by it. But they also want to take over the US position as world leader, and this is an opening for them to do so. They will have been planning these moves since the election at least, if not before.

And if they so decide, if their climate dance moves are sufficiently convincing and impressive on the one hand, and the Trump administration sufficiently objectionable to European leaders on the other, the Chinese and the Europeans can together exert enough political and economic power to force the Trump administration to minimize the damage it does to the Paris plan, or suffer the consequences. The international economic sanctions regime that the US has used for years against Iran and Russia can be directed the other way.

This Chinese support for Paris is a good thing for the planet in the short and long term. But if it leads to the further isolation of the US, it's bad for democracy. The US is and should be the natural leader in such things. Allowing China to strengthen itself externally by taking the high road on climate is not going to end well. The US should be instead be keeping that position for itself.

The Brexit vote means that Britain's conservative government is free to side with the US against any methods, including sanctions, that the Chinese and Europeans might use to maintain Paris. Britain supports Paris, but not as a first priority. Instead, Prime Minister Theresa May has come out forcefully for free trade, and is pinning her post-Brexit plans on Britain maintaining itself as a world leader through free trade -- a very traditional British geopolitical stance, by the way, with precedent back to the debate over the Corn Laws, and all the more believable for it. May sees free trade as a way to navigate Brexit's rocky shoals and keep Britain afloat.

The free trade policy sets the UK at odds with any future sanctions effort the Chinese and Europeans may use to support Paris, but also against the Trump administration's plans for industrial protectionism at home.

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