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The Chinese Question

February 19, 2010

The International Herald Tribune has offered up some great Op-ed pieces on China lately. Most recently, it featured this piece by current First Secretary of State in Britain, Peter Mandelson.

What I like about Mandelson’s piece is that it offers a very plausible explanation for the apparent contradiction between China’s increased international assertiveness and its continuing tendency to abrogate international responsibility, such as at Copenhagen. Many seem to interpret this as a sign of the ruthlessness we should expect from such an authoritarian regime, but as Mandelson argues, there’s more to it than that.

For instance, readers may recall the views of some that China deliberated wrecked the Copenhagen deal to make the West look bad and delay domestic action. Mandelson’s view is more nuanced:  

“What Copenhagen reinforced is the current mismatch of our expectations of China and China’s own assessment of its role and responsibilities. Europe and the United States want and expect an engaged partner. China is often suspicious of that expectation and insistent on its own terms for any such role.”

Why the reluctance on China’s part? There are a few issues, according to Mandelson:

“China is increasingly led by a younger generation of Chinese, whose whole adult experience is defined by two decades of Chinese growth and who resent any suggestion that China should or could be dictated to on economic management or anything else.

“…But what Europeans too often don’t see is that behind this growth is Chinese caution and inhibition born of a governance challenge on a massive scale. On the face of it, they tend to be much more confident of China’s inexorable rise than their Chinese counterparts.

“China’s leaders have a profound belief in China, but they are highly pragmatic about the challenges they face. They know that the export-led Chinese growth model is not sustainable in the long term. They know that weak domestic demand and state-led bank lending, flush now with a huge stimulus, need to give way to something more diverse and durable.

“Europeans see 10 percent annual growth, barely slowed by global recession, as a juggernaut, a tectonic shift in the global economic order.

“Chinese leaders see it as the minimum required to create the jobs to meet the expectations of a society that needs to make a stable transition from a largely agricultural society to an entirely industrialized modern one in the space of two or three generations — generations that are getting older very fast. We see China as increasingly rich. China sees itself as still, in many respects, worryingly poor.

“…Europe and the U.S. want China to step into a leadership role. China is understandably preoccupied with its own development and stability and still suspicious that the international rules it is being asked to enforce were not written with its interests in mind.

“There is something in that. The machinery of global governance is still “Atlantic” in its orientation and both the I.M.F. and the World Bank need to be reformed to reflect China’s growing influence, along with that of the other emerging economies.”

And he concludes with this:

“…Europe and the U.S. need to recognize that China will not simply accept a model of global governance or multilateralism that it played no part in designing, or which it feels does not reflect the imperative of its growth and stability.

“But China needs to make it clear that it understands that China is too big, the challenges too great and the global village too small for China to retreat into inflexibility or insularity. We may have to show some patience, and nerves for the occasional friction, but one way or another, we all need China to succeed and we all need China to start leading.”

If the fall-out from Copenhagen should have taught us anything, it is that countries have equally pressing issues to worry about than climate change. This is an idea to which many commentators pay lip-service, without fully understanding the extent to which that excludes certain types of solutions to the problem. The sheer difficulty of squaring the domestic needs of individual countries with a broad international climate famework is enormous. Not to mention the fact that the need for unanimity between all countries in the UNFCCC for resolutions to be adopted is unworkable in the longer term, especially when you have countries like Venezuala et al who refuse to accept any solution that does not simultaneously set in train the end of global capitalism…!

For these reasons, the way forward has got to go through unilateral actions, as well as smaller multi-lateral north-south agreements which are aggregated over time into a larger global framework. The so-called bottom up appproach which is the contrary of Kyoto. But, bottom-up as it may be, the UNFCCC should play the role of facilitator for that, and act kind of like the world’s chairman, independent auditor and carbon accountant. It should see to it that these multi-lateral processes are kept as consistent as possible with common global objectives, not just regarding emissions trajectories and the pursuit of national objectives, but also in terms of monitoring, reporting and verification, in terms of rendering transparent the accounting for financial transfers, and in terms of a unified and well governed global carbon offset market. The UNFCCC should try to provide no more and no less than the global infrastructure that can facilitate a more or less coherent, transparent and functioning global climate governance system, composed of diverse national objectives, financial flows and mitigation actions.

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