A pay­off in Obama’s China pol­icy

Sino-U.S. progress on cli­mate change is an un­ex­pected bright spot amid other, failed ef­forts at co­op­er­a­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Christi Par­sons christi.par­sons@la­times.com Times staff writer Jonathan Kaiman and spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Jessica Mey­ers in Bei­jing con­trib­uted to this re­port.

HANGZHOU, China — Pres­i­dent Obama, of­ten frus­trated in his ef­forts to con­tain China’s re­gional power, ad­vance hu­man rights and open mar­kets, has set­tled for progress else­where in re­la­tions be­tween the world’s lead­ing economies: tack­ling cli­mate change.

In an an­nounce­ment Satur­day that vir­tu­ally no one pre­dicted when Obama be­gan to draw up his for­eign pol­icy goals af­ter tak­ing of­fice in 2009, he and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping of­fi­cially com­mit­ted their na­tions to a land­mark global cli­mate agree­ment years ahead of sched­ule.

And Obama and Xi, de­spite their many other dif­fer­ences, ce­mented their lead­er­ship craft­ing tough en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and prod­ding oth­ers to fol­low.

“Just as I be­lieve the Paris agree­ment will ul­ti­mately prove to be a turning point for our planet, I be­lieve that his­tory will judge to­day’s ef­fort as piv­otal,” Obama said in a cer­e­mony with Xi ahead of the Group of 20 sum­mit to make the rat­i­fi­ca­tion for­mal. “To­day we are mov­ing the world sig­nif­i­cantly closer to the goal that we have set.”

Xi said he hopes other coun­tries will step up their time­lines for com­mit­ting to the Paris ac­cord, fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of China. “When the old path no longer takes us far, we should make use of new meth­ods,” Xi said. “China is a re­spon­si­ble de­vel­op­ing coun­try and acts as a par­tic­i­pant in global cli­mate change ef­forts.”

Joint progress in the fight against cli­mate change was far from cer­tain at the be­gin­ning of the Obama pres­i­dency, and the White House had not ex­pected this break­through amid other, failed at­tempts at co­op­er­a­tion.

“For decades pre­vi­ously, it was as if China and the United States were the cap­tains of two op­pos­ing teams in a match” over green­house gases, said Brian Deese, a key Obama ad­vi­sor and ne­go­tia­tor in the cli­mate talks. “The pres­i­dent was al­ways op­ti­mistic,” he said, but “clear-eyed.”

When he crafted his China pol­icy, Obama sought out is­sues on which the U.S. could co­op­er­ate with the Chi­nese, as well as ar­eas in which the two na­tions would com­pete.

The strat­egy was part of Obama’s plan to shift U.S. fo­cus from the Mid­dle East to East Asia, a strat­egy of­ten termed as his “Asia pivot.”

The ap­proach was pred­i­cated on nur­tur­ing strong lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween Obama and Xi, who took of­fice in 2013.

The ef­fort be­gan in earnest with a sum­mit that year be­tween Obama and Xi at the Sun­ny­lands pres­i­den­tial re­treat in Ran­cho Mi­rage, a meet­ing that gave Obama his first real glimpse into the mind of the Chi­nese leader.

Xi used that meet­ing to pro­pose a “new type of great power re­la­tions” be­tween the two coun­tries.

Xi’s phrase re­vealed how China views its resur­gent global role, as the White House saw it, just as Obama’s re­fusal to echo it demon­strated his trep­i­da­tion.

The two lead­ers kept talk­ing, meet­ing eight times over the last 3½ years and sanc­tion­ing scores of bi­lat­eral talks be­tween their gov­ern­ments.

At the same time, though, Xi be­gan push­ing a much more ag­gres­sive stance in Asia that by its na­ture would limit the in­flu­ence of the West.

China pro­voked its neigh­bors with con­fronta­tions in the South China Sea, an area claimed by other coun­tries in the re­gion, and has moved to build a mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity on an ar­ti­fi­cial is­land there.

“From the Chi­nese side, there’s much less of a per­cep­tion that they need any­thing out of the U.S.,” said Arthur Kroe­ber, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Bei­jing-based re­search firm Gavekal Drago­nomics. “So that means, con­versely, the U.S. has less lever­age to get things it wants.”

That has be­come plain in other ways too. China re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, the sig­na­ture trade pact Obama is still try­ing to pass.

Amer­i­can busi­nesses com­plain of greater re­stric­tions and murky laws that make it harder to com­pete in China.

China also passed a law re­quir­ing greater scru­tiny of for­eign non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions and their lo­cal part­ners, and launched a cam­paign against so-called West­ern val­ues.

The coun­try has clashed with the U.S. over in­vest­ment rules and cur­rency ex­change rate pol­icy. Ten­sions re­main high over Chi­nese breaches of Amer­i­can cy­ber­se­cu­rity sys­tems.

And, in a strik­ing re­buke of free speech, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment last year rounded up more than 300 lawyers and hu­man rights ad­vo­cates.

“China is a richer, more di­verse and more self-con­fi­dent coun­try than it used to be,” Kroe­ber said. “It can be more as­sertive go­ing af­ter what it wants. And there’s not much any­one else can do to change that.”

That made cli­mate change an un­likely is­sue where the two su­per­pow­ers might co­op­er­ate.

But a pop­u­lar Chi­nese re­volt may have achieved what diplo­macy alone could not.

Af­ter a wave of chok­ing air pol­lu­tion in Bei­jing in­spired a sharp back­lash from the Chi­nese peo­ple in 2011, the coun­try be­gan to pro­mote in­vest­ments in re­new­able en­ergy and stepped up plans to set up a car­bon trade mar­ket to dis­cour­age pol­lu­tion.

Crit­ics of Obama’s for­eign pol­icy have asked whether the U.S. should be so deeply in­volved in col­lab­o­ra­tive projects with the com­mu­nist na­tion.

Oth­ers say there’s not enough cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion to de­ter­mine whether gains from the cli­mate pact are all that sig­nif­i­cant.

“Do we be­lieve that the Chi­nese are ac­tu­ally op­er­at­ing un­der that ac­cord?” asked Dean Cheng, a China an­a­lyst at the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion think tank. “Do we re­ally see them as cut­ting back, when they are now the big­gest global green­house emit­ter?”

But Obama ad­vi­sors point to the cli­mate agree­ment as val­i­da­tion of the pres­i­dent’s ap­proach. They say Obama is un­der no il­lu­sions about why Chi­nese of­fi­cials have come to the ta­ble to talk about any of the is­sues on his agenda.

The cli­mate agree­ment stands out be­cause China did its own anal­y­sis and de­ter­mined that co­op­er­a­tion suited the na­tion. In that sense, said Deese, it’s an ex­am­ple of how Obama thinks about us­ing Amer­i­can power “as a force for good.”

How Hwee Young Pool Photo

PRES­I­DENT Obama and his Chi­nese coun­ter­part, Xi Jin­ping, left, at­tend a joint rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the land­mark global cli­mate agree­ment in Hangzhou, China. Their com­mit­ment to the ac­cord came years ahead of sched­ule.

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