27 April 2021

Condemning China’s human rights abuses shouldn’t stop us cooperating on climate change

By Gray Sergeant

During last week’s Commons debate on Xinjiang there was a curious mention of the environment. This was not some ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn in the fact that it was Earth Day, but rather a relevant warning to the British government that China could use the issue as leverage. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who brought it up, argued that cooperation on climate change with China should not hold the British government back from criticising Beijing’s appalling human rights record. That is, the two issues should be treated separately, even if Chinese officials want to link them together.

Sir Iain is right. Britain should talk to China about human rights and climate change. After all, both issues are of the utmost importance to the UK. Moreover, as the Biden Administration has demonstrated, it is possible to cooperate and condemn, without needing to tone down the latter to facilitate the former. The United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry was clear in the run up to his visit to Shanghai last week: “Yes, we have big disagreements with China on some key issues, absolutely. But climate has to stand alone.”

Exchanges between the US and China over the past few weeks are proof that discussions on environmental concerns can be kept separate from human rights. Kerry’s visit was a welcome example of high-level dialogue on the issue from which emerged a joint statement committing both countries to tackling the climate crisis and promoting a successful COP 26 (the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference being held in Glasgow this November). Likewise, General Secretary Xi Jinping’s attendance at President Biden’s two-day virtual summit on climate change, to mark Earth Day, last week is another sign of cooperation on the issue. Both took place despite the Biden Administration holding a tough line on other big issues.

It was only last month when Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly voiced his concerns to China’s top diplomats, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, about Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and towards Taiwan, as well as China’s use of cyberattacks and economic coercion against fellow liberal democracies. It’s not just talk either. In the case of Taiwan, the State Department has officially relaxed its rules on officials meeting with Taiwanese counterparts and Biden has already send a high-profile delegation to Taipei. There are also reports that the US will make its first arms sale to the country.

Admittedly, Britain has not been so fortunate with its interactions with China so far. After weeks of deteriorating relations over human rights concerns, culminating in Beijing sanctioning British parliamentarians, China then decided to withdraw from a key meeting in the run up to COP26. Given this, and the need to keep the world’s biggest CO2 emitter on board, it would be tempting for the Government to cave in. Much like the executive vice president of the European Commission and the EU’s ‘Green Deal chief’, Frans Timmermans, who reportedly kept quiet about contentious issues during a recent call with Beijing.

Britain should hold its nerve. China has a stake in tackling climate change too, and not just for the obvious reason that, like every other country, it will suffer disastrous consequences from inaction. Beijing has pitched itself as a world leader on the issue with Xi Jinping committing China to carbon neutrality by 2060. China has also sought to benefit from the influence and goodwill generated from this, and was particularly successful at doing so during the Trump era, when Washington was showing anything but leadership on environmental questions. It seems unlikely that China is prepared to jeopardise these gains, especially at a time when concerns over human rights and regional security are making it an international pariah.

Britain should push forward, with like-minded countries, for ambitious goals to tackle climate change. Beijing ought to know it is in their interest to cooperate on this global challenge or risk losing yet more hearts and minds around the world. Moreover, however much Chinese officials protest, the Biden Administration have demonstrated that discussions on environmental problems can be kept separate from other contentious issues – for the sake of the planet they must.

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Gray Sergeant is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society’s Asia Studies Centre.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.