China Representative, Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liu Zhenmin, speaks during a discussion panel in Alliance of Slamm Iceland States (AOSIS) Pavilion during the COP28, UN Climate Change Conference, held by UNFCCC in Dubai Exhibition Center, United Arab Emirates on December 3, 2023.
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Climate diplomacy in turbulent times: EU and China re-engage

The EU needs to shape the current phase of re-engagement with China by adjusting its approach to environment and climate cooperation on two fundamental levels. Moving away from dialogue for the sake of dialogue, the EU Commission has to consider the different political perceptions of climate cooperation and pursue a more stakeholder-centric approach with China.

EU-China relations have seen a rough few years with China’s inward-turn during the time of Covid-19, and economic competition and political tensions increasing. Ties in most fields of the relationship have been interrupted, with communication in several issue areas coming to a halt. In this situation, EU policymakers have started to see environment and climate as the partnership topic in their relations with China. As a major issue of common interest, it is often viewed as a useful means to keeping dialogue channels open.

Therefore, in the past few Covid-affected years, meetings on environmental and climate matters have mostly served as a platform for engagement, without necessarily expecting concrete results. Even when environment and climate were not to be the main focus of EU-China meetings, these issues were elevated on the agenda to balance the contentious trade and political issues. The same logic appears set to guide the upcoming EU-China summit in early December.

One persistent concern in the EU regarding climate engagement with China is striking the right balance between cooperation and competition. While the EU appears inclined towards a cooperative stance, it is concurrently engaged in heated competition with China, as exemplified by its recent anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric vehicle imports, just as China has restricted key electric vehicle battery component exports. This state of competition and simultaneous cooperation will remain a key feature of the EU-China climate relationship.

What needs to be done

To make the cooperation with China on climate and environment in the current phase of re-engagement more meaningful, the EU needs to adjust its perception and its approach on two fundamental levels. 

First, the EU has to consider the divergent political perceptions of climate cooperation. Climate and environment have a different place on China and the EU’s list of priorities and in relation to other aspects of their relationship. On the EU side, climate is high up on the agenda, and Brussels is trying to treat climate independently of other topics in the relationship such as trade or politics. 

Meanwhile, China views climate issues as just one facet of its foreign engagement, often downplaying their significance in favor of other priorities. Chinese representatives’ recent messaging at conferences like the G20, the United Nations General Assembly, and BRICS signaled that. Notably, the Chinese leadership prioritizes development overall above climate. Xia Yingxian, the head of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s (MEE) climate office and the incoming successor to climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, stressed the importance of respecting “different starting points and national conditions of each country.” Xia made this point on prioritizing development even more clear by stating that “COP28 should promote effective coordination between addressing climate change and poverty eradication, energy security, job creation, economic development and other needs.” 

China does not isolate climate from political relations

Furthermore, China’s integrated approach toward climate cooperation is evident in that it does not isolate climate from tense political relations and other areas. The Chinese Ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, made this point clear: “Global climate governance does not happen in a vacuum. One should not seek political confrontation on the one hand and expect unconditional cooperation on the other.” This approach stands quite in contrast to China’s relatively far-sighted thinking in other areas. Tying political tensions to joint climate action neglects the fact that global climate change does not halt on account of bilateral political frictions. Both sides are likely going to face even more severe consequences if they do not find a joint path forward. EU stakeholders need to keep this different perception in mind when negotiating with China on climate issues.

Additionally, Xi Jinping confirmed in July what has already been evident when observing Chinese behavior in the climate sphere over the last few years: China intends to advance toward carbon neutrality in a self-determined way, and the path will “never be influenced by others.” Some in the EU seem to have internalized the reality that China is moving at its own pace when it comes to its climate action while others still think that the EU or other partners can push Beijing to increase its ambition. 

More stakeholder-centric engagement may expedite climate dialogue

Second, Chinese government and party politics seemingly continue to be a black box, therefore the EU should put more emphasis on stakeholder-centric engagement with China. Frequent institutional reshuffles – the last one took place in March 2023 – may be one reason for the continued lack of understanding of Chinese decision-making processes. The higher the political rank of the government official, the more leeway for decisions foreign partners such as the EU can expect in dialogues. 

As a solution, the EU could adapt its approach to climate cooperation, moving beyond the more or less successful cooperation with China in technical areas (e.g., methane, target setting, etc.) and towards an additional focus on stakeholder-centric engagement. Ahead of climate dialogues, it is crucial for the EU to involve the right institutions and government representatives, a practice that currently seems inconsistent, in order to better grasp China’s decision-making processes and responsibilities. This adjustment, while not radical, is crucial. Technical cooperation, where the EU excels, no doubt remains important. However, investing that extra time in coordination and not agreeing to dialogues just for the sake of dialogue, may lead to more concrete outcomes. 

China and the EU as joint climate forerunners? 

While the US and China’s involvement is crucial for significant climate progress – not only at the COP28, but beyond – with its normative power, the EU also plays a vital and consistent role in global climate action. It remains unclear whether the US will stay on the same course on climate issues after the US election next year. Research has found that the US retreat from the Paris Agreements during the Trump administration paved the way for increased EU-China interdependence on climate issues. A similar scenario might replay.

To ensure positive competition in areas like green technology and resource supply chains, the EU and China must collaborate effectively during the current re-engagement phase. This period offers an opportunity to revamp climate cooperation and set a high benchmark for global climate leadership. However, in order to be successful, the EU has to significantly adapt its approach and make sure it delivers results.

A longer version of this article was first published by CHOICE on November 28, 2023.