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Interpreting Copenhagen’s ‘Confrontation of Heroes’

Posted by on 2010/01/12. Filed under Opinions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

By Liang Jing
Jan 12, 2010 – 10:15:39 AM

The Copenhagen Conference was, as many people had expected, full of drama. Nothing was more dramatic than the heated bickering between China and the USA, especially the “heroic confrontation” between Barack Obama and Wen Jiabao.

Given a climate change situation more pressing than ever, the conference was from the beginning filled with general anxiety. However, the Chinese delegation’s launch into sharp moral criticism of the West was confusing. The West indeed has a history of moral responsibility as regards global greenhouse gas emissions, but how helpful to solving the problem is it to seize on and hold to that now? China, I feel, seemed to have a set of well-planned strategies regarding the conference. What did they consist of? What was China seeking to achieve? Was it practicing offence as the best defence, shifting the pressure placed by the world on China as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases? Or did it want to cause the conference to fail, thereby reducing the pressure of China’s emissions?
With the conference now over, judging from the details revealed by the domestic and foreign media, these guesses of mine were wrong. Premier Wen’s participation was not intended to of wreck the conference, because China saw this would not be in its own interests. I was stunned, however, by the following discovery: Wen treated the conference as a good opportunity to enhance China’s and his own historical status; noting the moral plight of the US and the West, and a wide range of global public opinion that wanted the conference to succeed, he sought to make the utmost use of this opportunity to win popularity for China and for himself. Put more clearly, Wen Jiabao sought to directly challenge Obama’s leadership, and to play the role of the great hero who saved the global climate conference.

And the result? As Wen expected (or hoped), China took the lead in launching an attack on the US and the developed countries, exacerbating the pessimism in Copenhagen and threatening the conference with complete collapse. In the end, however, it was saved by Obama rather than Wen. Wen’s political strategy was ultimately no match for Obama’s political sagacity, and hence Wen’s dream of playing the hero in Copenhagen came to nothing. Great minds think alike. Wen and Obama realised that the key to the success of the conference lay not in emission reduction, but in finance. For a consensus had been reached globally on the need for reducing emissions—the problem was how to share the future investments and losses.

China sees itself as the leader of the developing countries, hence as occupying the moral high ground and taking the lead to pressure the US and other developed countries to pay more. Wen thinks himself invincible, but ignores a fact clear to others, namely that China is not only the biggest carbon emitter, but is also the US’s largest creditor, and has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves. This ensures that while it has great responsibilities and a major voice in financial issues, China has not prepared any constructive proposals.

With other countries increasingly pessimistic about the conference’s prospects, China’s government-controlled media suddenly sounded a more positive tone. On the plane to Copenhagen on December 16, Wen Jiabao waxed lyrical to Chinese reporters regarding his impending debut. [1] The following day, he manoeuvred in all directions, conducting the most ambitious summit diplomacy since the 1955 Bandung Conference.

His encounters with Obama in Copenhagen conveyed a wealth of information. In domestic political terms, both could claim to have fulfilled their mission, but Obama clearly won the praise of more of the world’s people, with some Chinese young people expressing approval of him online. [2]

On 17 December, Hillary Clinton announced that the US will help raise a climate aid fund of 100 billion US dollars per year to help poor countries fight global warming. This innovative measure exceeded expectations on all sides, immediately improving the atmosphere of the conference, and the rivalry between the US and China likewise. [3]

Arriving late on the 18th, Obama immediately put pressure on China over the issue of verifying emissions reductions, claiming that without international supervision, “any agreement would be empty words on a page.” Wen Jiabao reportedly took this as a great insult to China, “angrily left the conference centre” and sent a low-level representative to the talks. But he evidently never gave up his “heroic dream,” and planned, after coordinating a position with leaders of India, South Africa and Brazil, to have a showdown with Obama to compel him to submit. Learning that the four leaders were putting their heads together after the meeting, Obama unexpectedly turned up uninvited, forcing a key agreement that saved the conference, and thus dashing Premier Wen Jiabao’s personal “heroic dream.” [4] [5]

The “heroic confrontation” in Copenhagen’s showed that Sino-American competition over leadership in global affairs needn’t be a bad thing: if not for China’s challenge, the US may not have come up with the present financing option. However, the rise of authoritarian China also means the world is placed at great risk. Wen’s behaviour tells us that Chinese leaders who have emerged through authoritarian politics have no idea of the rule of law, and are unwilling to be restrained by collective agreements. Therefore, should supreme power in China be grasped by people who are unconstrained by morality, the world will face a “rogue superpower,” a nightmare that could become reality overnight.
* Liang Jing, “Jiedu Gebenhagen de Zhong-Mei ‘shuangxionghui’” [Interpreting Copenhagen’s ‘confrontation of heroes’], Radio Free Asia, 13 December 2009 [: “解读哥本哈根的中美“双雄会””, ,2009年12月 13日 (http://www.rfa.org/cantonese/commentaries/liangjing-12212009084424.html?encoding=simplified)

[1] Pang Xinglei, “Wen Jiabao: xunsu ningju gongshi, tuijin tanpan guocheng” [Wen Jiabao: quickly forge a consensus to promote the negotiation process], Xinhua wang, 18 December 2009 [庞兴雷: “温家宝:迅速凝聚共识 推进谈判进程”, 新华网,2009年12月 18日 (http://news.cctv.com/china/20091218/102700.shtml)

[2] “Wen Jiabao jinji woxuan Gebenhagen Huiyi: jin jiang fabiao jianghua” [Wen Jiabao urgently mediates Copenhagen conference, will speak today], , 18 December 2009 [“温家宝紧急斡旋哥本哈根会议 今将发表讲话”, 2009年12月 18日 (http://news.cctv.com/china/20091218/102735.shtml)

[3] “Xilali yuanzhu chengnuo nengfou rang Gebenhagen qihou tanpan fenghuiluzhuan” [Can Hilary’s promised aid bring Copenhagen back on track?], , 18 December 2009 [“希拉里援助承诺能否让哥本哈根气候谈判峰回路转?”,2009年12月 18日 (http://cn.reuters.com/article/CNAnalysesNews/idCNCHINA-1362820091218)

[4] http://news.sohu.com/20091220/n269072810.shtml (link lapsed).

[5] Bryan Walsh, “In Copenhagen, a Last-Minute Deal That Satisfies Few,” , 18 December 2009 [http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1929071_1929070_1948974,00.html].

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