The Hothouse of US-China Relations

As Hu Jintao, China’s Communist Party Secretary General and President, prepares to visit the US on April 20, myriad unresolved issues are disturbing Sino-US relations. Debates rage over the bilateral trade balance and revaluation of the renminbi, the status of Taiwan and Tibet, human rights violations, and intellectual property theft. China’s role in restraining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and its tense relations with Japan are an additional burden on ties. There is even disagreement about whether Hu’s trip to Washington is an official “state visit.”

These issues will dominate the headlines, but they pale in comparison to another problem that is on neither side’s agenda: global warming. That is a pity, because as British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently observed, over the long term, “there is no issue more important than climate change,” and there can be no agreement to reduce it “that doesn’t involve China, America and India.”

Moreover, climate change is no longer such a long-term problem, and only the lunatic fringe remains in doubt about whether the escalating use of carbon-based fuels is responsible for global warming. Indeed, recent assessments by the British Antarctic Survey suggest that temperatures over the Antarctic have increased 3.6 degrees since the early 1970’s, and that warming is taking place far faster than researchers had hitherto believed. Similarly, the journal Science reports that new studies show that ocean levels may rise much more rapidly and precipitously than anticipated.

Although the US and China are the world’s two primary producers of greenhouse gases – the US being the largest – neither has signed the Kyoto Protocol, which commits countries to cut carbon emissions 5% below 1990 levels by 2008-12. With China and the US out of the picture, the problem will likely get far worse before it gets better.