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By Shawn Rostker
The road to the 22nd Century will be paved by the ramifications of great-power competition between the United States and China. Competition will span across domains and be driven by an array of political and technological disruptions, though the principal disruptor will be climate change. The effects of climate change are already being felt around the world, and will only become more acute as we approach mid-century and beyond. This process, while transformatively destructive, will present opportunities for ambitious actors, chiefly, China. It is likely that China will pursue long-held policy goals, both domestic and international, under the pretense of climate change initiatives. In recent years, the Chinese government has greenlighted massive infrastructure projects and capital investments in an effort to bolster its security and secure access to and control over natural resources and global networks. The United States, though well positioned to ensure access to resources, will need to craft a new approach to global cooperation and international leadership on the climate front in order to remain competitive with China, as new alliances and partnerships are forged and the balance of power and influence becomes ever more multipolar amidst an uncertain world.
China realizes that the effects of climate change will present daunting challenges that will threaten its hegemonic ambitions if not proactively addressed. Much of its coastline is under threat from rising sea levels, while large swaths of inland countryside have already begun suffering from drought and arid conditions. In response to these growing threats the Chinese government has initiated an ambitious water infrastructure project, the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, to transport water northward to accommodate rapid expansion in a region where the per capita share of water resources has dwindled dangerously low and vital agricultural and industrial sectors risk collapse. In addition, China has also embarked on a “sponge cities” initiative to mitigate the impacts of flooding in coastal regions, an issue that China has long been aware of but only recently acted on. But China’s apparent change of direction in recent years from its overt reluctance to climate related investments to its growing concern for environmental policy has not been at the behest of climate activist groups or a powerful environmental lobby. China’s investments into technologies and climate change policies are strategic in nature and are part of a larger vision of global hegemony.
China seeks to establish itself as a premier global superpower and to do so it understands that it will need to control trade and shipping routes as well as resources, while also acting as a source of capital for global investment. In 2015 at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China pledged $60 billion in financial support to Africa, broken down as such: $20 billion in credit lines, $15 billion in grants, interest-free and concessional loans, and $10 billion in investment financing. Investments have largely been concentrated in energy and transport sectors. For instance, the Chinese Export-Import Bank provided eighty-five percent of the funding for the $475 million Addis Ababa Light Rail in Ethiopia, and has helped construct railways in Kenya, Zambia and other nations. Additionally, investments have been geographically concentrated in oil and rare earth metal rich countries, like Nigeria and Angola. The multi-faceted approach China has taken will ensure that it has a high level of influence over policy decisions in resource-rich countries and will be able to build and grow relations with leaders of emerging states in regions of the globe that are projected to be critically impacted by climate change. All signs point towards China’s continued efforts at market capture and trade control, and there is no reason to believe that the Chinese government feels any pressure to reevaluate its foreign policy or dampen its hegemonic ambition when the United States, its primary power-competitor, has begun to relinquish its global leadership role in recent years and been tepid in its imposition of measures of accountability.
China has displayed aggressive behavior on multiple policy fronts while also buttressing its authoritarian control over domestic affairs. It does so under the blanket of state autonomy, which it believes extends beyond its traditional borders and encompasses the vast majority of the Asian-Pacific region. China has gone to great lengths and expended enormous military resources defending its claims of control over the South China Sea, a consistent point of contention with the United States, and one that is only becoming more contentious as China’s growing blue water capabilities allow it to impose dominance over the maritime region, potentially being able to shut out the U.S. Navy entirely. Domestically, in June 2020 amid ongoing pro-democracy protests, China enacted its new National Security Law, effectively eradicating the “one country, two systems” policy, and oppressively constricting the political sovereignty of Hong Kong. Future brazen moves such as these to enforce state control over sovereign territories will become more prominent if China’s aggression is not met with collective resistance and denunciation from the United States and its allies. The erosion of democratic institutions abroad, particularly by the pummeling of autocratic regimes, destabilizes crucial barriers to conflict, delegitimizes the United States and its democratic principles, and weakens U.S. global influence.
As the United States has retreated from the international foreground, it has facilitated a vacuum of leadership that China is eager to fill. If the United States is not careful, it will see China capitalize and supplant it as the global center of power and influence. However, the United States will retain favorable power parity in the near-term and can still secure an outright role of leadership and share of influence in global affairs if it is keen and decisive with its foreign policy, and innovative in its domestic development moving forward. At the subnational level, private businesses and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) should continue to invest in new green technologies and lobby lawmakers to adopt policies crucial to greenhouse gas reduction. State governments and local municipalities should continue to emphasize the criticality of climate change and its effects at the local stratum, educating about micro-level consequences that macro-level problems have, and the necessity of collective action to mitigate these consequences. The federal government meanwhile should push international initiatives that call for public-private partnerships among leading researchers and innovators from around the world. Additionally, the creation of incentive schemes and subsidy programs could encourage and foster development of green technologies and lower barriers to investment in environmentally-friendly business practices.
If the United States demonstrates propensity for innovation and leadership in climate related fields within its domestic agenda, then it will be able to capitalize on the favorable perceptions of which it seeks to portray relative to China on the world stage. China does wield great economic power and influence but it must contend with a values-deficit because of its brutish economic and technological practices, its anti-democratic governance, and its oppressive treatment of its citizens and minority populations. The United States with its free-enterprise economy and democratic stewardship has the capacity to act as a global example of meaningful and necessary change. A robust engagement of American institutions can convey a cohesive and encouraging message to allies, both prevailing and prospective. Most importantly the United States should adopt a more active role in international development, extending new lines of credit to rising nations in need of infrastructure and aid. Congress should increase the annual budget for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which should then undertake a thorough investment discovery process to vet viable and transformative projects to help bankroll. Steps such as these would help the United States build a broad and dynamic coalition of bilateral and multilateral partnerships in strategically important regions to hedge against an increasingly competitive Chinese influence. The United States faces massive challenges in the decades ahead, as does the rest of the world. Multi-dimensional threats have the potential to inflict severe economic, environmental, and human costs if adequate and immediate actions are not taken to address the causes and mitigate consequences. Amid a changing world it is likely that an ambitious and unrestrained China will take full advantage of opportunities to extend its reach and expand its influence by using climate change as a pretext to execute its hegemonic vision. More can be done to prepare the United States for the challenges ahead, but by leading on innovation, strengthening existing partnerships, and building new multilateral coalitions to address the different aspects of climate change, the United States can take the necessary steps to blunt both the effects of climate change and Chinese expansionism, and ultimately cement itself as the global gatekeeper to the 22nd Century.