To jump to the Grandview Institution’s section, please click here.

The Case for Cooperation: Advancing National and Global Interests by Empowering NGOs

By Nat Ahrens and Matthew Chitwood


Cooperation has been a central component of the U.S.-China relationship since relations were normalized in 1979. However, neither side has cooperated simply for cooperation’s sake. Broad-based cooperation has served the self-interests of both sides, in areas ranging from trade and investment to security, from scientific research and student exchanges, to tourism. Cooperation has also functioned as critical ballast, steadying a relationship fraught with political, economic, ideological, and security tensions.

Today, with U.S.-China relations spiraling to their lowest point since normalization, the extent of cooperation has contracted and become politically toxic. Politicians on both sides of the Pacific fear that their domestic bases will see them as “weak on China” or capitulating to “Western hegemonic powers.” American hawks and Chinese wolf warriors dominate the headlines, vilifying the other side and drowning out pro-engagement voices. 

Nathaniel Ahrens is a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University SAIS. Ahrens is also the executive director and founder of the American Mandarin Society and the president of Nimble Lingo, a Chinese language-learning technology company.

Matthew Chitwood is a research writer with expertise in economic development and education exchange in China. He recently returned from a two-year fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs reporting from an impoverished village in Yunnan province. 

When cooperation is mentioned, it is rarely more than an afterthought tacked onto a long list of grievances, while those who promote cooperation are viewed as intentionally or naively overlooking the thorny aspects of the relationship.

There are strong arguments against unfettered, blanket cooperation between the United States and China. Economic and technological interdependence have revealed vulnerabilities that present real threats to the security of both nations. Both governments have stated that economic security is a core part of national security, moving the trade relationship into a more strategically competitive arena. Competition around emerging technologies has also increased tensions, as not only do they enhance economic competitiveness, but also bestow military advantages. Conflicting strategic interests, especially around the South China Sea and Taiwan, are exacerbated by underlying ideological conflicts and issues of national identity. As relative power shifts across all aspects of the relationship, both countries are experiencing an increase of friction that is expected to continue.

For the United States, China’s rise suggests it will supplant international norms and challenge the global order. Ideological differences also result in hard-to-reconcile human rights issues that cannot be fully isolated from other aspects of the relationship. Abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Hong Kong have made cooperation on other areas difficult for the United States. China’s use and facilitation of digital surveillance tools worldwide strengthen anti-democratic forces that are anathema to American political and social values.

From China’s standpoint, the United States seems intent on suppressing China’s growth and changing its system. This includes calling for regime change and using language perceived as trying to drive a wedge between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people, both considered by China as inappropriate interference in its internal affairs. This sort of rhetoric increased dramatically during the Trump administration and served to solidify long-standing suspicions in China about U.S. intent.

Despite the many competitive and contentious areas of the relationship, it is in both countries’ best interests to cooperate on some issues. The United States and China both have national interests in stopping illicit drug trafficking, combatting piracy, and maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula. But there are also some issues that extend beyond respective national interests to an ethical and moral imperative of cooperation for the global good. Climate change and global pandemics are two such issues.

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union not only managed to cooperate with each other on public health[1], together they led the world to eradicate smallpox.[2] Where government-to-government cooperation was limited, scientific and health NGOs bridged the gap. If Soviet-American cooperation was possible during the Cold War, certainly the United States and China can cooperate now. The United States and China have already overcome significant differences in order to address the global financial crisis, outbreaks of SARS and Ebola, and the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons.[3] Now, with more pressing global needs, the two countries should turn their collective attention to climate change and pandemic prevention.

Cooperation on Climate Change and Pandemic Prevention

Climate change and pandemics present two of the greatest challenges to global stability, both independently and as tipping points for other potential crises. Both have spillover effects on economic growth, political stability, national security, debt, and migration. Aside from world war and nuclear catastrophe, we are hard-pressed to find two issues with more potential for causing global misery. Without U.S. and Chinese leadership and cooperation on climate change and pandemics, the entire world is at risk of becoming less prosperous, hospitable, and secure.

Cooperation in these areas is critical, but the current geopolitical environment makes it challenging. The United States and China need to make efforts to build a firewall around these areas, protecting them from the contentious areas of the relationship. While there is a good argument for some issues to be linked—human rights abuses in Xinjiang and trade in cotton goods or surveillance technology, for example—critical areas such as climate change and pandemic prevention should not be held hostage to other competing interests. Despite domestic political headwinds in both countries, these are not zero-sum, but rather true examples of win-win cooperation.

Despite the overwhelming rationale for cooperation on these issues, the geopolitical reality is that even with the change in U.S. administration, tensions between the U.S. and China are likely to increase, making cooperation difficult. The U.S. Congress remains focused on both real and perceived threats to American dominance and will place practical limits on White House attempts to make cooperative overtures to Beijing. Much of this will be justified. The extensive list of issues to deal with, from Taiwan and the South China Sea, to human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, to trade disputes and competition in emerging technologies, makes competition and confrontation the more likely framework for relations. Similarly, Beijing may be making rash assumptions about American decline in a manner similar to that in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, leading to overconfidence and excessively nationalist rhetoric.

Even more daunting is the fact that respective domestic politics hinder the most meaningful action on climate change and global health.

In the United States, both climate change and COVID-19 have become politicized to a degree that makes substantive action difficult. Caught up in the hyper-partisanship of American politics and hindered by a federal system that places key authority in the hands of states, climate change is a highly complex collective action problem that the U.S. system of government is not particularly well positioned to tackle. And one of the greatest tragedies of the Trump administration may be the politicization of public health measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

In China, home to half the world’s coal capacity, it is proving a challenge to reduce fossil fuel usage while simultaneously spurring economic growth and preventing a further drop in employment. Even while the government makes bold commitments to become carbon neutral by 2060, coal-fired power plants are financed and built domestically and abroad by China at an increasing rate.[4] On pandemic prevention, the Chinese government has been reluctant to increase transparency and cooperation, appearing more interested in shifting blame than in identifying the origins of the virus and preventing future outbreaks.[5] The Trump administration’s focus on blaming China for the pandemic has also painted China into a tight corner in terms of its willingness to increase transparency and cooperation.

While climate change and pandemics are two of the greatest challenges faced by both the United States and China, and neither of these is solvable without the cooperation of the other country, the unfortunate political reality is that it may take time for the two governments to come together on these issues.

Still, there are important actions that each country can take independently that require minimal cooperation. Moral imperatives aside, climate change presents economic and national security risks to both countries. It is in each of their best interests to take steps to mitigate and adapt to global warming. In this low-trust geopolitical environment, both countries should focus initially on domestic green jobs and the potential for new areas of economic growth, rather than depending solely on commitments in global agreements.

The Biden administration’s elevation of climate change to a top priority, along with rejoining the Paris Agreement, will certainly be important, but in terms of measurable decreases in emissions, the near-term effects are likely to be limited. Instead, framing American action in terms of retaking a seat at the global leadership table and spurring domestic job growth should be top priorities. Restrictions on oil and gas companies’ methane emissions should also be retightened.

For China, the commitment to be carbon neutral by 2060 is a substantial pledge. Previously, China chafed at the notion that it should have to reduce emissions to the same degree as developed nations who are responsible for most of the stock. But, as the world’s largest emitter of fossil fuel carbon dioxide, achieving this goal will require reducing its dependence on coal, while at the same time coping with rising energy demand and downward pressures on employment.

On the pandemic and global health fronts, the White House has rightly rejoined the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite WHO’s imperfections, maintaining a seat at the only global organization specifically tasked with addressing pandemics is an almost de minimis expression of U.S. leadership and the best way to effect change. Reform is best pushed from within the organization. Additionally, joining COVAX, if the Biden administration can get Congress to agree, would send an important message to the world about America’s return to the global stage. Increasing staffing of U.S. health officials and scientists in China is also low-hanging fruit.[6]

The Chinese government, in turn, should approve the visas of U.S. health officials and scientists as the Biden administration re-staffs these vacancies. The Chinese government should also improve cooperation with the WHO and be more responsive to WHO requests for information than it was in January 2020.[7] Recriminations against reporters and medical professionals who spoke out about the pandemic should stop. While China implemented strong measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, retaliation against outspoken citizens and the lack of transparency reduces the effectiveness of domestic and global responses to this and future health crises and also diminishes China’s credibility and reputation.

However, the fact that government-to-government opportunities for cooperation are limited does not preclude important cooperative progress on these critical issues. While the high-level actions recommended above would send important signals about global action on climate change and public health, it is not governments, but nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are responsible for much of the substantive work on these issues. While the term “NGO” is used differently in the U.S. and China, we use an expansive, literal definition to include educational and research organizations, nonprofit organizations, foundations, hospitals, and public and private companies.[8] These organizations remain the best channel for making near-term progress. Therefore, one of the most effective measures governments can pursue is to create a more positive and enabling environment for NGOs to continue cooperative action. 

The Role of NGOs in Cooperation

Over the last 50 years, NGOs have served as the backbone of ever-evolving U.S.-China relations. Starting in the 1970s, people-to-people exchanges and scientific and technical collaboration began to shape the U.S.-China relationship. Since then, the flow of scientists, academics, students, businesspeople, and non-profit employees has grown and propelled tremendous positive changes on both sides. Businesses and trade have created more prosperity and jobs for both countries. Research collaboration has accelerated scientific progress. Educational exchanges have promoted mutual understanding. And environmental nonprofits have combated wildlife trafficking, protected the ocean, and kept climate change at the top of the agenda. While policymakers often focus on governmental power, it is the non-governmental sectors that have been responsible for most of the social and economic gains, and, as noted by Elizabeth Knup of the Ford Foundation, for playing a major role in “framing and shaping the contours of the Sino-US relationship.”[9]

Even as relations have spiraled downwards, NGOs have remained critical channels for cross-Pacific engagement. Thanks to years of cooperation and trust among international colleagues, while political friction has taken its toll on exchanges, robust collaborative infrastructure remains relatively intact. And NGOs remain vital to making progress in areas of mutual interest, such as climate change and pandemic prevention. But continued progress in each area will depend to a great extent on how freely NGOs are able to cooperate across borders.

Key Obstacles to NGO Cooperation

In recent years, the operating environment for NGOs has become increasingly constrained. Chinese and American government actions have made cooperation more challenging, and security pressures have increased risk aversion for participants on both sides. While in some cases the government actions are justified—such as cracking down on industrial espionage, restricting sensitive technology exports, and pushing back on human rights abuses—in many cases the incremental decrease in risk is dwarfed by the dramatic loss of benefits.

Obstacles in China

The Chinese government is impeding cooperation by tightening restrictions on foreign and domestic NGOs, raising the prospect of arbitrary detention, and engaging in cyberattacks and industrial espionage against U.S. organizations.

The Foreign NGO Law

The “Foreign NGO Law,”[10] as it is known colloquially, has tightened restrictions on the activities of all non-Chinese NGOs in China, thereby limiting collaboration across the board. These restrictions apply not only to NGOs with a permanent presence in China, but also to overseas NGOs seeking to conduct programs, projects, and other “temporary activities”[11] in China. There are several aspects of the law in particular that inhibit NGO activities and should be addressed in order to stimulate greater cooperation.

First, the lead authority shifted from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Ministry of Public Security, signifying the primacy of security concerns over cooperative benefits. It has, in essence, announced to all actors that NGOs are first and foremost a security threat—“hostile anti-China forces”—rather than a source of positive contributions. The central role of the police, along with the wide scope of activities covered by the new law, and vague language around threats to national security or social stability, have raised concerns among foreign NGOs that anyone could be targeted for doing work deemed a threat by the CCP.

For foreign NGOs resolved to operate as a permanent legal presence in China, one of the biggest challenges is the complex and bureaucratic registration process. They must find a professional supervisory unit (PSU), a Chinese government agency willing to sponsor and approve all operations. But PSUs may be held responsible for foreign NGO “misbehavior,” so most are hesitant to expose themselves to unnecessary risk. In particular, small NGOs have had little success registering because of the complex bureaucracy and difficulty securing a PSU.[12] Whether these NGOs are willing and able to comply with the burdensome and intrusive reporting and auditing requirements is another question.

The difficulty in planning and executing temporary activities has had an even greater impact on the reduction of cooperative non-governmental programs.[13] Since the law came into effect in January 2017, just over 3,000 temporary activities have been approved. It is not clear how many activities were conducted prior to the law, because no such designation existed, but anecdotal evidence suggests there were many multiples more.[14] The registration process is time-consuming, complex, and requires a willing Chinese Partner Unit (CPU), such as a state organ, a public institution, or a social organization. The law requires that CPUs submit the formal application and also use their bank account to fund any activities within mainland China. The result is that Chinese partners are often unwilling to undertake the hassle of registering or, like PSUs, are risk-averse and conclude that the risks outweigh the potential benefits of cooperation. With current circumstances leaving it untenable to apply for every minor activity, foreign NGOs are left operating without permission or simply not operating in China at all. For many foreign NGOs and Chinese partners, the cost of engagement is simply too high. 

To further complicate matters, Chinese NGOs face intense scrutiny over foreign-source funding. The additional reporting requirements and cloud of suspicion that results from accepting foreign funding serve as strong disincentives to international cooperation. This threatens to undermine the positive work they have been doing both with and independent of foreign partners.

Retaliatory Detention and Hostage Diplomacy

The threat of arbitrary detention has weighed heavily over the international NGO community ever since Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians working for international NGOs in China, were detained in December 2018. The detentions are accepted by many to be retaliation for Canada’s arrest, on behalf of the United States, of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO on charges of bank fraud related to U.S. sanctions on Iran. This threat escalated in October 2020 when The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese government had threatened retaliatory detention of American citizens for U.S. arrests of Chinese military-affiliated scholars.[15] Even prior to COVID travel restrictions, anecdotal reports were widespread of academics, think tank policy experts, and businesspeople refusing to travel to China because of the threat of arbitrary detention. The State Department gave further credence to that concern with the publication of an official travel advisory.[16] The fear of arbitrary detention may be the single greatest hindrance to cooperation moving forward.

 In a similar vein, the Chinese government and security apparatus has a history of retaliating against individuals and organizations that voice perspectives contrary to those of the government or CCP.[17] The goal of such retaliation—often achieved—is to quiet voices of dissent. It does so not only at great personal cost to those directly affected, but also at the indirect expense of missed opportunities for cooperation and the diminution of Chinese soft power. Recent developments in Hong Kong, especially those stemming from the passage of the Hong Kong national security law,[18] have made these fears even more widespread.

Cyberattacks and Industrial Espionage

Long a source of bilateral tension, cyberattacks and industrial espionage attributed to China further threaten to constrain the political will for cooperation and opportunity for NGO engagement. The Obama administration’s 2015 Cyber Agreement represented substantial progress and, for a period thereafter, commercially focused attacks appeared to decrease.[19] In recent years, however, the quantity and magnitude of China’s attacks and theft of trade secrets have continued to grow.[20] This past summer, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Chinese hackers believed to be connected with China’s Ministry of State security for targeting medical research groups focused on developing a COVID-19 vaccine.[21] These attacks, heightened by the perception of state complicity, threaten to derail areas of critical collaboration. If state-sponsored hacking and industrial espionage continue to be waged against the United States, it becomes very difficult to build a firewall around opportunities for collaboration in global health and climate change.

Obstacles in the United States

The United States is impeding cooperation by its restrictive immigration policies, politicization of cooperation with China, and inadequate education of nongovernmental actors about security threats.

Immigration Policy

The flow of talent between the United States and China has benefited both nations, increasing knowledge, generating economic gains, and strengthening social ties. Recently, increased American visa restrictions, initiated in response to alleged threats to U.S. national security, have adversely affected the ability of Chinese citizens to enter and stay in the United States, reducing the social and economic benefits of immigration and impeding the ability to cooperate.

Recently, the U.S. has imposed visa restrictions on Chinese graduate students in sensitive technology sectors with national security applications and on researchers with military ties. It has also reduced visas for state-controlled media outlets, tightened restrictions on members of the Communist Party and those affiliated with the United Front Work Department (UFWD), and sanctioned some officials named as responsible for policy measures related to crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. To a certain extent, these measures seem prudent. However, these restrictions also negatively affect scholars beyond these parameters, including critical STEM researchers, by barring their entry or encouraging their emigration because of fears of undue scrutiny by federal law enforcement. It has also negatively influenced American soft power, with many Chinese students no longer viewing the United States as a safe country in which to pursue their education.

Prudent visa policy is necessary to protect against legitimate economic and national security threats, including against intellectual property theft and economic espionage. The challenge, however, is to mitigate risks while still allowing exchanges that are in American interests. A completely risk-free immigration policy is not possible, and should not be pursued as our primary means of security enforcement.

At the same time, Chinese visa policies are certainly not free from blame. Chinese restrictions on visas for foreign journalists and critics of Chinese policies are especially troublesome and noteworthy.[22]

Politicization of Cooperation

The politicization of engagement with China is also problematic. A number of outspoken American politicians and pundits have vilified efforts at cross-Pacific cooperation, framing cooperation with China as anathema to love of country. The Trump administration amplified this rhetoric through its simplistic attempts to push back on all aspects of the China relationship, rather than take a more nuanced approach. This has made it difficult for all types of organizations, from private companies to academic research centers to nonprofit organizations, to work with China in good faith without facing domestic criticism.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s “China Initiative” has taken some meaningful steps to protect Americans against malicious cyber activities, espionage, and theft of trade secrets. But the framing of this initiative has also led to the racial profiling of Chinese-Americans and Chinese citizens, particularly among students and those in research and technology fields. The politicization of COVID-19, including the Trump administration’s labeling of COVID-19 as the “China virus,” has only heightened these tensions, with xenophobic attitudes affecting not only Chinese-Americans, but Asian-Americans more broadly. To be clear, there are very real threats that are effectively addressed under these Department of Justice policies, but the U.S. government should be able to advance American security without resorting to xenophobic attitudes and stoking racial tensions. We should also note that China, too, has politicized cooperation by its state-controlled media’s steady drumbeat of “Western anti-China forces” seeking to undermine the CCP. This narrative, along with attempts to shift blame for COVID-19 onto the United States, sows distrust and exacerbates anti-China rhetoric in the U.S.[23]

Inadequate Preparation for the Risks of Cooperation

Cooperating with China invariably involves working with China’s political system. This may include members of the CCP, “influence organizations” such as those affiliated with the UFWD, and even organizations like think tanks or universities, which, unlike their American counterparts, are mostly state-affiliated.[24] A recent report identified 600 organizations in the United States linked to the UFWD, spread throughout the business community, educational institutions, and media.[25] Organizations seeking to shape favorable perceptions of China through covert or coercive means have been the source of concern for members of the U.S. government and security apparatus for years, but insufficient effort has been made to educate Americans engaging with China, both at home and abroad, about these hazards. Well-intentioned and unsuspecting players become susceptible to security risks if they are not educated about the Chinese political and security system and the potential risks of blind engagement.

In recent years, the departments of justice, education, and defense all have put pressure on nongovernmental actors to cease interactions with CCP-affiliated organizations and to increase transparency about foreign funding. Universities, research organizations, nonprofits, and private companies are now scrambling to take protective measures to reduce the risk of these interactions, but a better job of education and attention to security is still required. Without adequate training, China’s influence operations pose a genuine threat not only to American organizations and national security, but also to the broader prospects and will for U.S.-China cooperation.

At the same time, shuttering all cooperation with Chinese organizations that are affiliated with the CCP or UFWD is short-sighted and detrimental to American interests.  The U.S. government should focus on educating Americans for secure, effective engagement rather than discouraging or banning interactions altogether. The Chinese government should also realize that these efforts at influence threaten the foundational openness with which American institutions operate and from which China benefits.


Though many obstacles complicate the U.S.-China relationship, we can—and should—create spaces for cooperation that will promote our national interests and make further progress on issues of global concern. This does not mean setting aside all our differences or betraying our values. Nor does it mean everything needs to be done together. But we can identify shared goals and maintain open channels of communication as we work to achieve our aims.

To overcome the current standstill and advance official engagement, we recommend that the U.S. and Chinese governments (1) focus cooperation on climate change and global health and (2) create a more enabling environment for nongovernmental cooperation.

1. Focus cooperation on climate change and global health.

There are obvious, early-harvest gains to be made on climate change and global health—actions that the Biden administration has already signaled it will take. President Biden, as promised, rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the WHO on the first day of his presidency. He has appointed John Kerry as “global climate change envoy” and he plans to increase staffing of American public health officials in China. The Chinese government, which has already committed to the Paris Agreement, will be rolling out key policies in the upcoming 14th Five Year Plan to achieve their recent pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060.

But the broader political environment is not conducive to bold cooperative action on these issues. In order to make headway, the two governments first and foremost must take action to:

Build a firewall around climate change and global health as pillars of critical cooperation. Both governments should encourage engagement in these areas, despite political pressures on the overall relationship and on other issues. By the same token, building a firewall around these issues also means not using them as bargaining chips in a larger political deal. When conflicts in other areas do arise, governments should actively reinforce messaging that prevents climate change and global health cooperation from suffering collateral damage. De-escalating the inflammatory political rhetoric on both sides is critical. Further efforts also need to be made to de-politicize the issues themselves. Both countries have strong, existential interests in addressing these global challenges. Doing so requires the United States and China to differentiate between constructive and harmful interactions so that not everything is viewed through an antagonistic, ideological lens that inhibits collaboration between nongovernmental actors. Disagreements over origins of the COVID-19 virus and government response, for instance, should not preclude joint efforts to coordinate responses to future pandemics, including disease reporting, information sharing, expert exchanges, and negotiating supply chain agreements and norms.

Strengthen the mechanisms of cooperation around climate change and global health. The U.S. and China should create high-level frameworks to identify shared goals and lay out long-term visions for climate change and global health. These frameworks, possibly similar in concept to the 2008 U.S.-China Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment, would help define the parameters of cooperation, encourage Track II initiatives, and develop action plans that help nongovernmental organizations engage on these issues. Summit meetings between the U.S. and China specifically focused on climate change and global health would also send a clear signal to subnational governments, public-private partnerships, businesses, and academic institutions that cooperation in these areas is back on the agenda, even with ongoing tensions in other areas. If presidential meetings are not politically feasible or too difficult to limit to these discrete issues, then meetings at the vice-presidential and ministerial levels could be effective alternatives.[26]

Protect climate change and global health efforts from malicious cyber-activities. Progress in this area is critical to improving broader mechanisms of cooperation. If malicious cyber activities and industrial espionage continue at their current pace, cooperation is unlikely to get off the ground. Similar in concept to the Obama-Xi 2015 Cyber Agreement[27], high-level emissaries should meet to designate areas of cooperation off-limits to espionage and to reinforce previous commitments. Public health and climate-related organizations should be expressly protected. This could function as a standalone agreement or be incorporated into a sector-specific framework as suggested in the bulletpoint above. Though difficult to enforce, if successful, this model could expand into other areas of cooperation to protect against industrial espionage, hacking, and other malicious cyber-activities.

2. Create a more enabling environment for nongovernmental cooperation.

Amidst governmental conflict, cooperation among nongovernmental actors remains the best channel to make progress on climate change and public health issues. In order for them to be effective, efforts need to be made to address key obstacles to engagement, including revising China’s Foreign NGO Law, addressing fears of arbitrary detention, preventing the weaponization of visa policies, educating NGOs on the risks of cooperation, and countering xenophobia.    

Revise the Foreign NGO Law. First, China’s oversight authority over foreign NGOs should revert back to the Ministry of Civil Affairs from the Ministry of Public Security to re-frame foreign NGOs as solution partners rather than security risks. The temporary activity-permitting process should be simplified and streamlined to reduce the barriers to cooperation. The Chinese government should create an umbrella sponsoring unit to serve as a default Chinese Partner Unit (CPU) to alleviate the difficulty of finding a partner that can navigate the registration and reporting process, and that is willing to answer to the Public Security Bureau. Creating several umbrella sponsoring units in various fields of expertise would be even better. Ultimately, revision of the law should allow for direct registration of NGOs, treating them on equal terms with commercial businesses and eliminating the need for PSUs altogether.

Eliminate the threat of arbitrary detention. The detention of the two Canadian NGO workers has had a chilling effect on nongovernmental cooperation and business investment. This impact will be felt for some time, but the critical first step towards its reversal is for the Chinese government to release Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Governments must clearly distinguish between the affairs of governments and private citizens and deal with each of them through appropriate channels. National security laws should not be used as sweeping, catch-all policies for politically motivated detentions; these laws should be retained for matters that truly impact national security.

Stop weaponizing visa policy. The increased scrutiny the U.S. government has placed on Chinese student visas has been excessive. While students and scholars from some military institutions should be prevented from studying certain technical fields, these cases are the exception and do not warrant recent blanket policies. The reduction of five-year F-1 visas to a single year with limitations on optional practical training is likely to have deleterious effects on Chinese students coming to U.S. universities. Furthermore, visa restrictions based on political affiliation, such as the recent restrictions on Chinese Communist Party members, are anathema to American values and have little practical effect beyond creating enmity and reducing American soft power. With a view to reciprocity, the Biden administration should roll back some of these recent restrictions, while China should cease to weaponize its own visa restrictions towards journalists and scholars. The Chinese government should also allow American scholars and researchers to benefit from longer visa terms.[28] In this regard, both sides should reaffirm their commitments to 10-year visas.

Empower NGOs to resist inappropriate foreign influence. The U.S. government needs to better educate U.S. citizens and NGOs on the risks of cooperation with Chinese counterparts, along with mitigation strategies to resist inappropriate foreign influence. Organizations and individuals need to review their oversight and governance practices, with attention to activity reporting, funding transparency, and federal funding guidelines. The federal government should provide a clearinghouse of risks and mitigation strategies, or fund a nonprofit third-party to do so, to help NGOs understand best practices and due diligence. This public resource should also provide background information on Chinese affiliations and state institutions, and advise on managing Chinese requests for engagement. Ultimately, it should strike a balance between being constructive and vigilant, and should prioritize public education over enforcement.

Denounce xenophobia and racism. The U.S. government must make every effort to protect the rights of the Chinese-American community as well as Chinese citizens living or studying in the United States. As President Biden addresses broader racial tensions, he should state unequivocally that discrimination against Chinese-Americans, Asian-Americans and Chinese citizens is unacceptable. Chinese scientists and scholars, in particular, have been the targets of unfair suspicions of espionage based solely on their ethnicity. These individuals and communities have sustained substantial collateral damage as a result of increased tensions with China, in part due to the Trump administration’s policy of indiscriminate pushback on all things China, its scapegoating of China for a wide variety of economic and social ills in the U.S., and its labeling of COVID-19 as the “China virus.” President Biden should highlight the positive contributions Chinese-Americans, Asian-Americans and Chinese citizens make every day to the nation and to their communities.


U.S.-China engagement must continue. Addressing climate change and preventing future pandemics are in each country’s national interest and will help avoid spillover effects that would have catastrophic global consequences. While the current political impasse and legitimate areas of contention portend serious challenges in the relationship for years to come, the United States and China need to learn to manage their differences while making positive progress on issues of collective security and global importance.

While governments play critical roles in tackling these issues, it is important to remember that the key drivers of positive change in the relationship are our people. The United States and China must unleash the cooperative and problem-solving power of our businesspeople, scientists, students, artists, and other members of civil society.

To be sure, there are risks to engagement. Both countries must endeavor to strike the difficult balance between protecting national security and facilitating cooperation. But in the areas of climate change and pandemic prevention, the benefits of engagement far outweigh the risks. The U.S. and Chinese governments must rise to the occasion to once again take up the mantle of global leadership and work together—for America, for China, and for the world.

[1] We use the term “global health” to refer to transnational health issues, and “public health” to describe the broader set of health issues that exist in an individual country. There are instances where this delineation is not clear and we use them interchangeably.

[2] Sean B. Carroll, “At the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union worked together to eradicate smallpox,” World Economic Forum, July 19, 2016,

[3] See Susan Rice, John Podesta, Hank Paulson, Mike Leavitt, Tommy Thompson, Jack Chow, “Six Crises,” interviewed by Evan Feigenbaum, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, audio,

[4] David Stanway, “China’s new coal projects account for 90% of global total in first half – study,” Reuters, August 3, 2020,

[5] See for example Guoxiu Wu, “CGTN Exclusive: Interview with WHO expert coming to China on COVID-19 origins,” CGTN, January 11, 2021,

[6] This includes staff from the Centers for Disease Control, the National Science Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The U.S. Field Epidemiology Training Program in China should also be re-staffed.

[7] “China delayed releasing coronavirus info, frustrating WHO,” The Associated Press, June 2, 2020,

[8] For more on this, see Elizabeth Knup, “The Role of American NGOs and Civil Society Actors in an Evolving US-China Relationship,” The Carter Center, 2019, , pp.3-4.

[9] Ibid., p. 2.

[10]Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-Governmental Organizations within the Territory of China,” The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, last modified April 28, 2016.

[11] Temporary activities generally refer to one-off activities not run through one’s own registered Chinese office, though the legal specifics are more complicated.

[12] At the time of writing, only 553 foreign NGOs had successfully established representative offices, with the majority being industry associations, chambers of commerce, and similar business-related organizations. For more details see: Jessica Batke, Shen Lu, “Visually Understanding the Data on Foreign NGO Representative Offices and Temporary Activities,” The China Ngo Project, February 1, 2021,

[13] ChinaFile has a useful FAQ section on this process: “Temporary Activity FAQs: Filing and Beyond,” The China Ngo Project, accessed February 15, 2021,

[14] “Temporary Activities Filterable Table,” The China Ngo Project, last modified February 8, 2021,

[15] Kate O’Keeffe, Aruna Viswanatha, “China Warns U.S. It May Detain Americans in Response to Prosecutions of Chinese Scholars,” The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2020,

[16] “China Travel Advisory,” U.S. Department of State, last modified December 17, 2020,

[17] “The Long Arm of China: Global Efforts To Silence Critics From Tiananmen To Today,” U.S. Government Publishing Office, last modified May 24, 2016,

[18] Officially titled the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

[19] While the results of the 2015 agreement were mixed, it did result in a significant drop in the number of attacks of the type covered under the agreement. See Herb Lin, “What the National Counterintelligence and Security Center Really Said About Chinese Economic Espionage,” Lawfare Blog, July 31, 2018, .

[20] “Information About The Department of Justice’s China Initiative and A Compilation of China-Related Prosecutions Since 2018,” The United States Department of Justice, last modified February 11, 2021,

[21] Christopher Bing, Marisa Taylor, “Exclusive: China-backed hackers ‘targeted COVID-19 vaccine firm Moderna’,” Reuters, July 31, 2020,

[22] Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “The debate over U.S. restrictions on Chinese journalists,” Axios, March 4, 2020,

[23] For example, see Gerry Shih, “Conspiracy theorists blame U.S. for coronavirus. China is happy to encourage them,” The Washington Post, March 5, 2020,,58-5dc8-11ea-ac50-18701e14e06d_story.html. For an excellent analysis of the politicization of COVID-19, see Yanzhong Huang, “How the Origins of COVID-19 Became Politicized,” Think Global Health, August 14, 2020,

[24] Yanzhong Huang, “China’s Think-Tank Great Leap Forward,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 28, 2015,

[25] Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “Exclusive: 600 U.S. Groups Linked to Chinese Communist Party Influence Effort with Ambition Beyond Election,” Newsweek Magazine, October 26, 2020,

[26] The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission operated at this level. For more information see Matthew Rojansky, Indispensable Institutions: The Obama-Medvedev Commission and Five Decades of U.S.-Russia Dialogue (Washington, D.C: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010),

[27] While the results of the 2015 agreement were mixed, it did result in a significant drop in the number of attacks of the type covered under the agreement. See Herb Lin, “What the National Counterintelligence and Security Center Really Said About Chinese Economic Espionage,” Lawfare Blog, July 31, 2018,

[28] Scholars and experts from American think tanks and similar research organizations are often not given ten-year multiple-entry visas, but rather limited to single-entry one-month visas.

China-U.S. Cooperation on Climate Change: History and Future Agenda

By Zhao Hai


Lessons of China-U.S. Cooperation on Climate Change

In the past 30 years, from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to the Kyoto Protocol, to the Paris Agreement, the world has gone through a winding road to building a U.N.-centered global governance structure and action plan on climate change. Any progress requires consensus-building as well as strong leadership to overcome the challenges of collective action.

Zhao Hai is a member of the academic committee and a senior research fellow of the Grandview Institution. He is the director of international political studies at the National Institute for Global Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (NIGS-CASS).

China’s carbon-neutral goal and emission control actions are a solid foundation for global cooperation on climate change, particularly with the United States. The two countries are the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world; China and the U.S. must work together to find solutions for the gap between developed and developing countries. It would have been almost impossible to reach the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to below 2°C in December 2015 if it weren’t for the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change in November 2014 and the bilateral Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change in September 2015.

On top of the Paris Agreement, China also worked with the Obama administration to accomplish the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol and the ICAO Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation resolution, both in October 2016. The former was an agreement by 197 countries to phase down hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, and the latter was aimed at capping aviation emissions at 2020 levels by 2027. The significant progress of bilateral cooperation on climate change during President Barack Obama’s second term provided at least five lessons for the future.

Mutual Respect Is Essential

In Kenneth Lieberthal and David Sandalow’s report, “Overcoming Obstacles to U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate Change,” published 12 years ago, the first recommendation was to “acknowledge the legitimacy of each other’s perspectives.” The authors explained that the U.S. and China bring very different perspectives to the issue, reflecting their different histories and circumstances, and each should recognize the legitimacy of the other’s viewpoint and avoid making these differences barriers to pragmatic cooperation.[1]

Another Pew Center and Asia Society report also stated that “a meaningful U.S.-China partnership on climate change issues can be forged based on equity, taking into account the respective stages of development, capacities, and responsibilities of each country.”[2] This argument should continue to guide the bilateral cooperation on climate change, for it was precisely this spirit of mutual respect that ensured trust between the two countries, from the top leadership to the parties involved in the process.

Over the Obama years, disagreements between China and the U.S. have often frustrated efforts to reach consensus on an effective international response to the problem of climate change. Key disputes have centered on the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle, or more specifically on the appropriate prioritization of economic development versus climate mitigation, responsibility for historic emissions versus contribution to current and forecasted emissions, and total emissions versus emission per capita.

However, both Chinese and American leaders maintained constructive attitudes despite intense debates due to their respect for the other side’s perspectives and needs. Common interests, effective communication, and determination led to necessary compromises and brought the two parties over the finish line of climate change agreements.

Working Mechanisms are Critical

The U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG), the premier mechanism for facilitating constructive China-U.S. dialogue and cooperation on climate change, was established in April 2013. This mechanism played a critical role in promoting climate change cooperation between China and the U.S. because it directly reported to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue for cross-country policy coordination, and it included nearly a dozen concrete action initiatives covering major sectors of the economy.

The ambition of China-U.S. cooperation can be reflected in these areas: heavy-duty and other vehicles; smart grids; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; energy efficiency in buildings and industry; collecting and managing greenhouse gas emissions data; climate change and forests; industrial boiler efficiency and fuel switching; climate-smart/low-carbon cities; green ports and vessels; and zero-emission vehicles. These action-oriented initiatives were guided by joint implementation plans and led by interagency actors on both sides. The CCWG also hosted a regular Enhanced Policy Dialogue that covered the international climate negotiations and respective domestic plans for achieving climate targets. Also, China and the U.S. founded the Clean Energy Research Center in Beijing and reached the Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment.[3]

Domestic Politics Matter

China experienced a dramatic change of domestic view and political economy on climate change. The U.S. also went through domestic political swings. At the federal level, the Obama administration saw climate change as one of its core issues on the political agenda. Greenhouse gas reduction was central to Obama’s economic recovery and job-creation plan. However, the prioritization of health care reform cost the Democratic Party the control of Congress, and the administration lost legislative and budgetary leverage to promote climate change legislation.

Obama took a different approach in his second term by fully deploying the executive power to drive the climate agenda. In the summer of 2013, he updated the Presidential Climate Action Plan (CAP), since the plan was first prepared at the beginning of his first term. The CAP called for cutting carbon pollution in America, preparing the U.S. for the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to address climate change. Among many proposals, the CAP directed the Environmental Protection Administration to raise carbon pollution standards on U.S. power plants, accelerate clean energy permitting, and raise fuel economy standards for the transportation sector.[4]

Concurrently, the U.S. was experiencing a fracking revolution that delivered record oil and gas production throughout the Obama years, directly undermining political support for climate change policies. Donald Trump, on his first day as president, abandoned Obama’s CAP, calling it “harmful and unnecessary.” Trump also quit the Paris Agreement, leaving other countries — including China — greatly disappointed. But gradually ample supply of American oil and gas caused a nosedive in energy prices, putting the debt-laden fracking industry in retreat. In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden announced he would rejoin the Paris Agreement and revoked Trump’s order by signing an executive order reinstating the Obama CAP.[5] In eight years, climate change policy has run a full circle in the U.S. due to the polarization of domestic politics.

Local and Pragmatic Cooperation Is Enduring

One of the most salient features of China-U.S. climate change cooperation is vibrant local and pragmatic exchanges and projects based on common interests among the two peoples. In the past decade, the two sides have been working together on clean coal, electric car technology, renewable energy, smart grids, carbon sequestration, and green building, efforts that have effectively improved both countries’ energy efficiency and reduced emissions. From the environment, energy, and transportation ministries and departments in the two countries to provincial, state, and municipal governments, multilayer policy exchanges, multiple pilot projects in many industrial sectors are sprouting up.

This pragmatic local cooperation has produced two important results. First, it has helped local governments acquire the knowledge, experience, data, and capability to analyze their environmental situation so they can make better plans for energy production, environmental standards, and emission targets. Second, it has enlisted social and business actors like environmental nongovernmental organizations, research institutions, enterprises, and even celebrities to join hands in specific projects. The increased coordination and mobilization in both societies have helped to consolidate public support for bilateral cooperation on climate change.

Indeed, local, business, and social cooperation on low-carbon sustainable development between China and the U.S. were so strong and mutually beneficial that it endured during the Trump administration but failed to flourish. Today, the cooperation is ready to move into a higher gear.

One Plus One Is Greater than Two

When China and the U.S. work together on climate change, the ripple effect is truly global. On top of the Paris Agreement, Kigali Amendment, and CORSIA, joint efforts by the two countries greatly reinforced the leadership of rule-making for climate change, setting the stage for global growth of renewable energy, green financing, and low-carbon technologies and industries. Green-tech transfer and joint development between China and the U.S. also reduced the cost and accelerated the wider application of alternative energy solutions in the least developed countries.

Meanwhile, China and the U.S. recognize the importance of mobilizing climate finance to support low-carbon, climate-resilient development in countries that have limited financial resources. As part of the Obama-Xi Joint Statement in 2015, China pledged 20 billion yuan to the South-South Climate Cooperation Fund within the framework of the 2030 Agenda, and the U.S. made an equivalent pledge of US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which accounted for 29% of the fund’s total amount announced.[6] China continued with the commitment and followed the plan to fund 10 low-carbon demonstration projects, 100 climate change adaptation and mitigation projects, and 1,000 training places in developing nations (the “10-100-1000” plan).[7] When the U.S. quit the Paris Agreement, Trump stated that the U.S. would not honor the $2 billion that remains to be paid to the GCF. Now that Biden has rejoined the agreement, it is hoped the U.S. will recommit to the GCF and contribute more to mitigation finance and help to reduce the huge adaptation finance gap.

In addition, with the U.S. ending public financing for new conventional coal-fired power plants except in the poorest countries, China also updated low-carbon policies and regulations to restrict public investment flowing into projects with high pollution and carbon emissions both domestically and internationally. As a result, the green concept was adopted and integrated into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China made additional financial and material contributions to U.N. country climate change initiatives.

All in all, despite a troubled start, China-U.S. cooperation on climate change before the Trump administration was a great accomplishment and that proved the viability of genuine bilateral cooperation on pressing global challenges based on common interests and real political leadership. There was no shortage of disputes between China and the U.S. in the climate change negotiations and on the geopolitical and security issues such as the Diaoyu Islands, South China Sea, and cybersecurity. However, the distrust, tension, and friction within the bilateral strategic relationship did not deter both sides from deepening cooperation on climate change. On the contrary, they highlighted the urgent need for a fulcrum for building trust and seeking collaboration to prevent a zero-sum interaction between the two largest economies in the world.

China’s Goal of Carbon Neutrality by 2060

 In the past 40 years since China’s opening and reform, the Chinese economy has been growing at an incredible speed, lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty and making it the world’s second-largest economy. The downside of this unprecedented growth is that China is also becoming the world’s largest polluter, with carbon dioxide emissions exceeding 9.8 billion tons in 2017, or 28% of the global total. Due to the economic development stage and industrial structure of China, 90% of the carbon emissions come from electricity generation, industrial production, and transportation. However, China’s economic structure has been changing, and the government is leading the way to transform the economy.

China’s Carbon Neutral Commitment

President Xi Jinping has addressed the importance of “ecological environment” numerous times in his speeches. “Ecological environment is a critical political issue, also a major social issue related to people’s livelihood,” Xi said. He coined the popular phrase “Green is gold” to highlight the value of sustainable development.

During the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020, Xi announced that China will strive to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. This pledge not only laid down a clear target for carbon reduction but also put China in line with carbon-neutral commitments made by developed countries, sending a strong signal to the world that China will play a leading role in implementing the Paris Agreement.[8] Now, these lofty goals will be integrated into China’s 14th Five-Year Plan and the 2030 Development Vision.

Such a high bar to curb emissions would require an overhaul of China’s current energy structure. In addition to switching from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources, this target-driven energy revolution must also rely on the digital transformation of the electric systems. Research shows that it is technically, economically and financially feasible to achieve the carbon-neutral objective and its impact on China’s GDP per capita in 2050 will be minimal.[9] If China’s carbon neutrality is realized in the next 40 years, it is estimated that China will reduce carbon dioxide emissions 215 billion tons in total. Even if other countries do not increase their carbon reduction commitments, global temperature will rise an estimated 2.59℃, which is 0.25℃ below the level currently expected.[10]

Solving the Problem of Coal

One of the greatest challenges ahead for China is its dependency on coal. China’s economy in the next decade will maintain a medium-high growth rate and the energy demand will continue to increase. Decarbonization in the industrial and transportation sectors poses a great technological and cost challenge, but it also creates unprecedented opportunities for new industries and markets.

During the “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan” period, China’s power generation installed capacity increased by an average annual rate of 7.6%, of which non-fossil energy installed capacity increased by 13.1% annually. The proportion of non-fossil energy installed capacity increased from 34.8% at the end of 2015 to 44.8% at the end of 2020. The average annual growth rate of coal-fired power installed capacity was 3.7%, and its share of total installed capacity dropped from 59% at the end of 2015 to 49.1% at the end of 2020. Still, mere reduction of coal in electricity generation is not likely to bring China to carbon neutrality. China needs more solutions to transform energy consumption and carbon dioxide control, particularly through electrification of transportation, a shift toward a high-level circular economy, decarbonization of heavy industries, carbon capture and storage, state-of-the-art building insulation, and other technological innovations.

In the Paris Agreement, China pledged to adhere to the nationally determined contributions (NDC) of 60-65% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions per unit GDP from the 2005 level, and to increase non-fossil energy to 20% of total energy consumption. On Dec. 12, 2020, President Xi announced at the U.N. conference that by 2030, China will aim at NDC of 65% and non-fossil energy at 25% of the total and will triple solar and wind power capacity of their 2019 levels by 2030.[11] The application of newer technology and a larger scale of deployment are leveling the cost of energy between fossil fuels and renewables. The cost of solar and wind energy has on average decreased 82% and 39% respectively in the past decade, and 56% of newly deployed large-scale renewable energy cost is lower than traditional fossil fuel energy.[12]

New National Guidelines on Climate Change

On Jan. 11, 2021, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) published the Guideline on Coordinating and Reinforcing Responses to Climate Change and Protection of Ecological Environment. Following up Xi’s carbon peak and neutral pledges, the guideline made it clear that countering climate change will be a critical part of China’s macroeconomic governance. Carbon reduction must be coordinated throughout the entire economy with unified planning, implementation, and reviewing systems. The guideline stated that China will accelerate the compilation of action plans for peak carbon emission, including specific plans for energy, industry, transportation, and construction. The steel, cement, nonferrous metals, chemicals, petrochemicals, electricity, and coal mining industries are encouraged to set targets and make action plans. Climate change legislation will be promoted, particularly the Regulations on Carbon Emission Exchange, and climate change standards will be amended to better evaluate carbon emission reduction.[13]

Also, the MEE and National Development and Reform Commission, People’s Bank of China, China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, and the China Securities Regulatory Commission together issued another guideline on Promoting Climate Change Investment and Financing (PCCIF) on Oct. 21, 2020. It aims at leveraging social capital to invest in areas related to climate change such as energy structural change, industrial optimization, production, and consumption modes, to meet the target of Nationally Determined Contributions and creation of a low-carbon society. One key part of the PCCIF is to encourage private and foreign capital to enter into climate investment and financing, in which carbon emission trading mechanisms will be further developed and foreign holding of green financial assets will be facilitated. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation on climate change investment and financing are also welcome.[14]

To answer China and other member countries’ call, Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank has promised to stop financing any coal-fired power plant or coal-related projects. By 2025, AIIB plans to allocate 50% of its loans to clean energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and climate change projects. Private capital will also be leveraged to participate in green projects.[15]

Biden’s Climate Change Plan and China

Since the term “Green New Deal” (GND) was first used by Thomas Friedman in January 2007 to describe the massive and comprehensive work that the U.S. government must do to avert climate calamity, the United Nations, President Obama, and Green Party candidates have all borrowed the concept to summarize their own climate policies that aim to make systemic changes. The Trump administration’s negligence and obstruction of climate policies has prompted the Democratic left, represented by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to push for an epic Green New Deal to overhaul the American economy.[16] Though Joe Biden did not endorse the plan while a presidential candidate, he and his climate change team agree with the goals and principles contained in the GND.

During the campaign, Biden’s “Clean Energy Revolution” on climate change also took a bold stand, just on a less ambitious time frame and at a lower cost than the GND. It promised to take detailed climate actions in the transportation, electricity, construction, and agricultural industries, and to invest a total of US$2 trillion for job creation and environmental justice. The Biden plan commits the U.S. to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, achieve complete carbon-pollution-free electricity generation by 2035, adopt rigorous greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for vehicles, establish an Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard for buildings and construction, create a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Climate to support low-carbon technologies, plug abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaim abandoned mines, make American agriculture the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions, create a climate and economic justice screening tool to identify disadvantaged areas, and establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Justice Department.[17]

Internationally, the Biden plan touches on the U.S.-China relationship in some detail, but the undertone of the plan is competitive, not cooperative. It specifically ties trade and climate policy, raising the concept of a carbon adjustment tax or quota on carbon-intensive goods. It even suggests conditioning future trade agreements on China’s commitment to meeting the Paris Agreement targets. On green technology and supply chain, John Kerry, the newly appointed presidential envoy for climate, argued in December 2019 that the U.S. is in a “green race” with China and it would be a geopolitical failure if China were to outrun the U.S. in innovation and green technology.[18] The plan extends and reinforces the “Buy American” policy with a view to build a more resilient supply chain domestically, including for electric vehicles. The Biden plan also takes a hardline on the Belt and Road Initiative, recommending alternative financing for low-carbon investments in BRI projects to replace Chinese sources. The plan seeks to hold China to high environmental standards for BRI’s infrastructure projects and to stop China from exporting or subsidizing coal-fired power plants to BRI countries.

The lack of a positive and cooperative plan with China on climate change in the Biden agenda shows the pervasive influence over American politics of the “tough on China” mentality. But in professional circles, the discussion of bilateral climate change cooperation is extensive, and hope resides in the fact that many China experts on the Biden team came from the Obama administration that used to be quite constructive on climate collaboration issues. Biden’s long political career and experience as well as his personal relationship with Xi may prove vital in overcoming the obstacles to climate change cooperation between the U.S. and China. Besides, local governments, NGOs, and businesses are all waiting and calling for the restoration of bilateral cooperation on climate, adding pressure to the two governments to act as soon as possible.

Recommendations for Climate Change Cooperation

On Aug. 7, 2020, when China-U.S. relations were rapidly deteriorating, Yang Jiechi, Politburo member and director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC, published an article on bilateral relations. Yang listed energy, law enforcement, drug control, local exchanges, and people-to-people as potential areas for bilateral cooperation, and the Korea peninsula, Afghanistan, the Middle East, cybersecurity, climate change, and public health as potential global issues for cooperation.[19] Since climate change and public health are top priorities for the Biden administration, China has identified climate change as a forefront issue for bilateral cooperation. As Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a virtual meeting on Dec. 18, 2020, China will not only firmly implement its Paris Agreement commitments, but also seek to work together with the U.S. to jointly contribute to the global response to climate change.[20]

However, the Trump administration has burned the bridge on climate cooperation over the past four years. It suspended the China-U.S. Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and the Environment (2008–2017), canceled the CCWG, and froze the China-U.S. Clean Energy Research Center. Moreover, U.S. tariffs and sanctions against China in the name of “national security” are so extensive, it becomes a web of barriers that are blocking progress on climate cooperation. Under the icy diplomatic relationship and poisonous political environment, any talk of cooperation with China in Washington, D.C., will be met with a long list of Chinese wrongdoing and the claim that the past policy of U.S.-China engagement was a fiasco. Therefore, how and when China and the U.S. can resume bilateral climate actions remains uncertain.

Climate change, on the other hand, is not waiting for human disagreements to dissolve. The year 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record, making the last decade the hottest on record as well. Temperatures soared the most in the Arctic and northern Siberia, reaching more than 6°C above average and causing weather abnormalities all around the world.[21] The cost of inaction or weak response is no longer bearable to humankind, and such a global emergency demands a decisive global response, particularly a China-U.S. coordinated one.

Recommended Bilateral Actions

The Biden administration is opening a window of opportunity for the U.S. and China to resume and upgrade their climate change cooperation. On one hand, Biden didn’t waste any time moving forward with his climate agenda by signing two executive orders, one to return to the Paris Agreement and the other to rescind permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, on his first day in office. On the other hand, Biden’s goal of making the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2050 has realigned America with all major countries in the world, particularly China, which aims for carbon neutrality by 2060. The reversal of climate change policy in the U.S. coupled with the pursuit of high quality and sustainable development by China may lay the foundation for a durable cooperative relationship on climate. Considering the current situation of bilateral relations, solid progress on climate cooperation could help rebuild mutual trust and provide a model for cooperation in other areas. From the good lessons of the past cooperation, China and the U.S. could start with the following actions.

> Rebuild Diplomatic Ties and Confirm Cooperative Intentions

During the last days of the Trump administration, almost all meaningful communications between the two countries were cut off or stalled: The U.S. consulate in Chengdu and the Chinese consulate in Houston closed, diplomats’ activities severely limited, journalists expelled, officials and companies blacklisted and sanctioned. Before there is any form of cooperation, it is extremely urgent to reopen channels of communication and to rebuild the basic working relationship between China and the U.S.

In the meantime, the two sides need to arrange for high-level climate change officials to talk over the phone or through online meetings, and meet in person when possible. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua should discuss and confirm each side’s intention for cooperation, the scope of that cooperation, the mechanism for negotiation and coordination, and short-term goals for confidence-building.

> Restart the US-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG)

Presidents Xi and Biden could either renew the Obama-era CCWG and grant the group wider authority or establish a new cross-agency comprehensive platform to cover the growing range of climate change issues. Either way, it is important that senior politicians who are heading the two teams directly report to the top leadership in each country.

The CCWG was created under the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, but it is not clear what kind of high-level framework will be established during the Biden administration. The CCWG or the new platform should have an independent mechanism. It will also be a plus if both teams could have advisory bodies consisting of top scientists, business leaders, and professional civil servants from both countries to provide constructive advice. Other climate change agreements like the China-U.S. Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center should be reinstated and fully funded.

> Focus on Rule-Making and Global Standard-Setting

Previous U.S.-China climate change cooperation focused on detailed action plans and environmental projects. Both countries developed and updated their domestic environmental rules and climate change-related standards over the years. With climate change policies entering a new stage, it is more important now to focus on formulating international standards for green buildings, transportation emissions, electricity generation emissions, industrial pollution, and so on. At the center of the carbon-neutral revolution is the question of carbon pricing and carbon emission exchange. Without global negotiation and collaboration on rulemaking for pricing and exchange, is hard to imagine how to set up a large and efficient global market to drive down greenhouse gases.

In addition, intellectual property protection on green technology and financial rules specifically designed to encourage green investment are also indispensable for the proper function of the market to transition societies to a low-carbon footing. The key content of the Phase One trade deal between China and the U.S. is intellectual property protection. China has modified domestic laws to enhance IP protection accordingly. Both countries could preserve and improve on the terms of the Phase One agreement and make them more relevant to green technologies. China and the U.S. could also lead such efforts in other international forums and institutions, such as the G20, World Bank, development banks, Asia-Pacific Cooperation, and the World Trade Organization.

> Empower Local Governments and Non-State Actors

China-U.S. exchanges on the local level (provincial/state, municipal) were very active before the COVID-19 pandemic, and local climate change cooperation was a critical component in the overall climate actions framework. The two countries need to renew and increase not only channels of dialogue to support continued local governments’ cooperation, but also promoting think tank dialogues, people-to-people exchanges, and public-private green projects. Back in 2015 and 2016, the U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summits, which connected major states, provinces, and cities in the two countries through shared climate goals, is a good example of how local and nonstate actors can grow more active and find innovative ways to counter climate change with the support of the two countries. More conferences, exhibitions, green tech tours, and training programs should be developed to sustain close ties between the two societies, which in time will generate higher and wider popular support in both countries for their climate change cooperation.

> Promote Joint Research on Next-Gen Green Tech

Technological competition between China and the U.S. is one of the most talked-about topics in the past couple of years. In response to real or imagined threats from China, the Trump administration launched a crusade against bilateral ties in science and technology. Scientists were prosecuted, federal funding to collective works was cut, Chinese students’ visas were restricted, and Chinese mergers and acquisitions of U.S. tech companies were scrutinized. Many believe that the so-called “decoupling” in high tech is inevitable. But without the flow of knowledge and know-how, green innovation will be delayed or disrupted, and the dissemination of green tech will be slow and costly. If both countries want to accelerate the implementation of the Paris Agreement, they must exempt the majority of next-gen green tech researchers from excessive national security or military control lists. A negotiated negative list on certain types of tech should be published and the rest should switch back to normal research cooperation in both countries. There should also be a joint program to finance the deployment of new green tech to the poorest developing countries in addition to the existing programs.

Lasting cooperation between China and the U.S. will bring a wide range of changes in green tech innovation, electric grid decarbonization, green financing standardization, and green trade regulation, giving the private sector, R&D facilities, global financial institutions, and multilateral organizations more incentives to collectively invest in a great transition toward a low-carbon future. To prevent more climate catastrophe, China and the U.S. must work together closely and look beyond the short-term political fluctuations due to trade friction and geopolitical competition. In the end, we share the same fragile habitat, and nothing surpasses the utmost importance of preserving it for posterity.

[1] Lieberthal, Kenneth, and David Sandalow. “Overcoming Obstacles to U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate Change.” John L. Thornton China Center Monograph Series, No.1, January 2009.

[2] “Common Challenge, Collaborative Response: A Roadmap for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change.” Pew Center and Asia Society, January 2009.

[3] “Report of the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group to the 7th Round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, June 24, 2015.

[4] “President’s Climate Action Plan,” June 2013. .

[5] “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” The White House. The United States Government, January 20, 2021.

[6] “Status of Pledges and Contributions Made to the Green Climate Fund,” July 31, 2020.

[7] Binbin, Wang. “After China’s Ministerial Shake-up, What’s next for South-South Climate Cooperation?” China Dialogue, May 14, 2020.

[8] “中国国家主席习近平联大致辞:中国积极投身国际抗疫合作 争取2060年前实现碳中和 | 联合国新闻.” United Nations. Accessed March 8, 2021.

[9] “China 2050: A Fully Developed Rich Zero-Carbon Economy.” Energy Transitions Commission, November 2019.

[10] Pollitt, Hector. “Carbon Neutral in China by 2060 Will Make China Richer.” Carbon Brief, September 29, 2020.

[11] Xi, Jinping. “继往开来,开启全球应对气候变化新征程  ——在气候雄心峰会上的讲话.” Xinhua Net, December 12, 2020.

[12] IRENA. “Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019,” 2020.

[13] “关于统筹和加强应对气候变化与生态环境保护相关工作的指导意见.” Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China, January 11, 2021.

[14] “关于促进应对气候变化投融资的指导意见.” Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China, October 21, 2020.

[15] Jin, Liqun. “金立群:碳中和目标是改革开放40年来最重要的政策举措之一.” The Paper, December 4, 2020.

[16] Ocasio-Cortez, Alexandria. “H.Res.109 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Recognizing the Duty of the Federal Government to Create a Green New Deal.”, February 12, 2019.

[17] “THE BIDEN PLAN FOR A CLEAN ENERGY REVOLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE.” Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website, October 29, 2020.

[18] Kerry, John, and Ro Khanna. “Don’t Let China Win the Green Race.” The New York Times, December 9, 2019.

[19] Yang, Jiechi. “杨洁篪署名文章:尊重历史 面向未来 坚定不移维护和稳定中美关系-新华网.” Xinhua News, August 7, 2020.

[20] “王毅同美国亚洲协会举行视频交流.” 中华人民共和国外交部, December 18, 2020.

[21] Newburger, Emma. “2020 Was One of the Hottest Years on Record, Tied with 2016.” CNBC, January 8, 2021.