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Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010

China wants it both ways


China is a schizophrenic power, a developing country on select international issues but a rising superpower that sees itself in the same league as the United States in other matters, with its new muscular confidence on open display. At the recent Copenhagen climate-change summit meeting, China was the former: It loudly emphasized its membership in the developing world and quietly used poor countries, especially from Africa, to raise procedural obstacles in the negotiations.

Make no mistake: China, the world's largest net polluter whose carbon emissions are growing at the fastest rate, was the principal target at Copenhagen. But China cleverly deflected pressure by hiding behind small, poor countries and forging a negotiating alliance with India and two other major developing countries, Brazil and South Africa, who together are known as the BASIC bloc.

China escaped without making a binding commitment on carbon- emissions cuts, at least for now. But the real loser was carbon-light India, which undercut its interest by getting bracketed with the world's largest polluter. In the process, India was compelled, along with other BASIC members, to agree to national mitigation actions under undefined international monitoring. Through the so-called Copenhagen Accord, India also has helped formulate, even if unintentionally, the broad terms for amending the existing climate-change regime, even though its interests demand no revision.

Let's be clear: On climate change, trade liberalization and other market-related issues, China — despite its emergence as a financial and trade Goliath — defines itself as a developing country and expediently seeks to join hands with poor nations so it can shield practices like keeping the yen artificially undervalued, maintaining an abnormally high trade surplus, restricting goods manufactured by foreign companies in China from entering its markets and continuing to bring on line two new coal-fired power plants every week.

But on political and security issues, it sees itself as without a peer in Asia, and is greatly enthused by the idea of a U.S-China Group of Two. If a U.S.-China global diarchy were needed on any issue, it is on countering accelerated global warming.

But on that issue, as Copenhagen revealed, China is not the self-touted rising superpower but a scheming power that uses poor states as a front to obstruct progress through procedural wrangling. To impede decision-making, it sent only a vice foreign minister to meetings set for the level of heads of state. And even though it hid behind India and other developing nations, Western leaders did blow its cover after the summit, with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown taking the lead to call it the principal wrecker at Copenhagen.

With climate talks to resume this year, India has to learn the lesson from its folly at Copenhagen in providing diplomatic cover to China.

First, China has little in common with India. With its carbon-intensive, manufacturing-based economy, China's per-capita carbon emissions are four times higher than India's. Although both countries seem to have similar competitive advantages, China's rise has been on the back of an increasing export surge, while India's imports-dependent economy is carbon thin, reflected in the fact that its per-capita emissions are just 26 percent of the world average. India indeed has the lowest per-capita emissions among all important developing countries.

Second, in the runup to Copenhagen, India gratuitously signed a five-year understanding with China to present a united front in international climate-change negotiations, with the Indian minister of state for environment, in a hallucinatory loop of delusion, going to the extent of saying that there "is no difference between the Indian and Chinese negotiating positions."

What is common between these two countries when China openly rejects India's approach that per-capita emission levels and historic contributions to the buildup of greenhouse gases should form the objective criteria for carbon mitigation? China, as the world's back factory, wants a different formula that marks down carbon intensity linked to export industries.

Instead of a deal being struck between the world's two largest polluters, the U.S. and China, U.S. President Barack Obama was forced to cut a deal with the BASIC bloc. India, though, has little in common even with South Africa and Brazil, either in carbon profile or industrial- development level.

India not only aligned itself with the wrong group, but also it presented itself inadvertently as a major global polluter by making common cause with China, whose carbon profile is becoming more akin to America's. China now is responsible for 24 percent of global carbon emissions with 19.8 percent of the world population, but India's current contribution does not match even half its population size.

Yet, instead of de-hyphenating itself from China, India went into the negotiations as if it were joined at the hip with that country, first by agreeing to put up a united stance and then by following in Beijing's footsteps to unveil a voluntary plan to slash its carbon intensity by 2020.

How much it suits China to be seen in the same class as India on carbon issues than with its real polluting peer, the U.S., was made clear by the hurried post-Copenhagen telephone call the Chinese foreign minister made to his Indian counterpart to emphasize continuing Sino-Indian collaboration. But when it comes to global or Asian geopolitics, China insists India (like Japan) is in a junior league.

New Delhi, for its part, can be sure that when criteria for mitigation action is defined in future negotiations, China will work to unduly burden India by insisting that weight be given to elements other than per-capita emission levels and historic contributions. Having unwittingly aided the Chinese game-plan in Copenhagen, India needs to embark on a correction course. After all, had the situation been the opposite — with India's per-capita emissions four times higher than China's, and with India in the line of international fire — would Beijing have helped provide New Delhi political cover?

More broadly, the post-Copenhagen Western attacks on China suggest that Beijing could increasingly find it hard in the future to blunt criticism of its policies and practices by jumping on the developing world's bandwagon whenever it suits its interests. The global economic crisis has only made China's assertive practices less acceptable.

China, the world's largest and longest-surviving autocracy that still flouts international norms on trade, human rights and currency, is likely to come under greater pressure as a self-serving power whose interests are at odds with the rest of the world — both developed and developing. Copenhagen thus will go down as a turning point.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of "On the Frontline of Climate Change: International Security Implications."


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