President Donald Trump’s decision to isolate the U.S. on climate change has handed China a golden opportunity to burnish its image as a global leader, even as it angers and unsettles European allies.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate — aligning the U.S. with Syria and Nicaragua as the only holdouts from an accord reached by almost 200 nations — leaves a leadership void to be filled. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Trump at a summit last month that the retreat would signal a U.S. willingness to let less benign powers, like China, step up on the international stage.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to capitalize on the public-relations opportunities afforded by Trump’s “America First” doctrine – helping mask China’s habit of flouting the international order when the rules don’t suit its goals. Xi used the Davos forum of global elites in January to portray his country as a bastion of free trade. A European Union-China summit in Brussels Friday provided a platform for both sides to trumpet their support for climate policies and clean energy.
“This situation should do a lot to ease the pressure on China to ‘behave well’ as a rising power,” Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said by email. “Now, it’s the U.S. that looks like a revisionist power. China, on the other hand, due to its increasing efforts to play a leadership role in world affairs, will be now viewed positively, especially among the Europeans.”
In Europe, leaders expressed disappointment — and defiance — after Trump’s decision Thursday.
“To all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision of the president of the United States, I want to say that they will find in France a second homeland,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in English in a speech televised from the presidential palace. “I call on them, come and work here with us.”
Merkel vowed to rally Europe and the world behind the Paris accord, calling it “irreversible.”
“We need this Paris agreement to protect creation,” she told reporters in Berlin on Friday. “Nothing can or will stop us.”
For Germany, “the worrisome part is that Trump basically says, ‘I’m not interested in being a global leader anymore,’ ” said Jan Techau, head of the Richard Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin. “It spooks them a great deal. They understand that the U.S. is the security guarantor, that it sets global standards. You sense that with the political elite, but also with ordinary folks.”
The U.S.-European trans-Atlantic bond is already under pressure after Trump’s visit to European capitals last month. In the aftermath of his blustery diplomacy on trade and security, Merkel said that ties that have underpinned German foreign policy since World War II are “to some extent” less dependable.
Read more: What Comes of Paris Climate Accord Without U.S.
Nicaragua’s complaint with the Paris accord is that it’s too weak, not too onerous.
The Central American nation would support a legally binding agreement that demands more of large polluting nations, Private Secretary for National Policies Paul Oquist said in an email. The country accounts for 0.03 percent of global emissions and boosted its renewable energy mix to 53 percent in 2015 and seeks to reach 90 percent by 2030.
“If Nicaragua, the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean, can make these kind of advances in renewable energy and reforestation why can’t the major emitters?” Oquist said.
Trump presented his decision in populist terms reminiscent of his inauguration address in January. He said the accord undermined U.S. interests, sent taxpayer money abroad and didn’t require enough from other nations, singling out China and India.
“The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement. They went wild” because “it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage,” he said Thursday.
The move bolsters Xi’s message that China, not the U.S., now leads the world. His major diplomatic project is an effort to recreate ancient trading routes from China to Europe overland and by sea, which he calls the “Belt and Road Initiative.”
“This is an open goal for China to step up and be the most responsible global leader on the planet and do so in a way that is not threatening to anyone,” said Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “You can bet your bottom dollar that China is going to present itself as a pioneering leader.”
China has a domestic incentive to claim leadership on climate change, an issue considered politically existential by the Chinese Communist Party. The pollution that now chokes the country’s rivers and air — forcing its population to regularly don filter masks and keep their children home from school — is a result of breakneck economic growth promoted for decades by Beijing.
China has been the world’s biggest clean-energy investor since 2012. In 2016, it spent $88 billion on clean sources of energy such as wind and solar power, accounting for about one third of renewables investment globally. According to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China invested $17.9 billion in new clean energy projects in the first quarter, compared with $4.1 billion in Japan and $9.4 billion in the U.S.
The praise China is winning with its “guardian-of-the-rules-based-order” messaging contrasts with its behavior in other domains.
Beijing last year earned widespread condemnation when it ignored an international tribunal ruling — made under a global convention to which China is a signatory — that its claims to almost all of the South China Sea have no legal standing. In Hong Kong, its persistent encroachments on the city’s autonomy prompt regular outcries that it has breached a treaty signed with the U.K.