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28 May 2017 10:37 (South Africa)
Politics

All hail the brave new world of Chimerica

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics
chimerica

You should have been able to see it coming if you followed Barack Obama’s recent visit to China. From the back and forth (in America) over the Dalai Lama’s visit (to the White House) before Obama’s China visit; the way financial analysts parse the two countries' relationship due to American debt held by China; by virtue of trade disputes between the two nations over everything from tyres to chicken feet, and now the efforts of the two at Copenhagen, the world seems to be settling into a new bipolar world. Or, as some wags have put it, the world of Chimerica.

Copenhagen is now ground zero for this still-evolving relationship. The remaining 191 nations have, increasingly, taken second place to the cage rattling of the two big polar bears. And, as the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters and the first and third national economies (China will soon overtake Japan to become number two), what these two nations finally agree on will set the scene for what is possible in Copenhagen – or what is beyond a global deal - this time around.

American and Chinese negotiators have stepped up their respective campaigns, trading accusations but making little progress in negotiations on what has now become the critical issue of treaty compliance. While Chinese negotiators have been relatively non-vocal in actual, formal sessions, they have made it clear outside those sessions that they do not expect money from the industrial powers to help make the shift to a more energy-efficient economy – and that at the same time they will not accept outside monitors to ensure they are actually making agreed-upon changes in greenhouse gas emissions. Or, as Chinese vice foreign minister He Yafei said to the Financial Times, “This is a matter of principle,” even if it scuttles the talks.

Photo: The power row: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Britain's Prince Charles and UN climate chief Yvo de Boer attend the opening session of the high-level segment of the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 15, 2009. REUTERS/Bob Strong

American officials have retorted that despite nearly a year of negotiations with the Chinese, there were still fundamental problems that may not be solved before the end of the conference; the US adds that the Chinese emissions target is too low. Without a stronger emissions commitment and an agreement to international monitoring, the US Congress is unlikely to approve a tough new domestic climate regime for the United States. “If China or any other country wants to be a full partner in global climate efforts, that country must commit to transparency and review of their emissions-cutting regime,” said Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and co-sponsor of the climate and energy bill that has passed the House of Representatives.

A similar bill, however, is stalled in the Senate. While the threat of Senate refusal can limit Barack Obama’s negotiating flexibility, paradoxically, it can also be a club in the hand of the administration’s negotiating team in its efforts to gain compromises from counterparts in Copenhagen – or face the possibility the US Congress would fail to ratify any treaty at all.

Todd Stern, America’s chief negotiator added that, “In any big and complicated negotiation, and this may be the biggest and most complicated ever, it never goes smoothly,” he said. “It never goes as planned. There’s always bumps. There’s always zigs and zags, people getting up and down, and that’s to be expected.”

There is another side to this US-China standoff. Beyond any Copenhagen agreement, Chinese refusal to accept verification might also lead to calls for punitive tariffs on Chinese goods entering the US. Ten Democratic senators wrote to Obama a few weeks earlier on this very point - warning that the Senate would not ratify a treaty that did not protect American industry from foreign competitors who don’t have to meet global warming emissions limits. Of course there is also a school of thought that argues such a threat could nudge the Chinese to reach a deal, since “their No. 1 motivation is to avoid border tariffs,” an anonymous but senior US official noted.

NGO expert Barbara Finamore, director of the China program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that in her opinion, Chinese leadership is pursuing a cautious and calculated strategy as talks near the decisive period. “They’re going to wait until the last hour of the last day and just as the other side is walking out they’ll say, ‘Hey, come back,’ just as they do every day in every market in China. That’s why they’re the best negotiators in the world.” She could have added that they’ve also had about 5,000 years of practice at this negotiations business, so perhaps they have a real knack for it.

Trying to ease this growing tension, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said both rich and poor countries must “stop pointing fingers” at each other and they must increase their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions to salvage a deal. “This is a time where they should exercise the leadership. And this is a time to stop pointing fingers, and this is a time to start looking in the mirror and offering what they can do more, both the developed and the developing countries,” he said. The secretary-general made his comments as environment ministers and government leaders have begun arriving in Copenhagen, pushing the conference up a notch.

Photo: The dearly beloved leader of the free world, President Robert Mugabe holds his earphones' cord as he attends the opening session of the high-level segment of the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 15, 2009. REUTERS/Bob Strong

And as the conference heads into its final days, one of the first heads of state to arrive was Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. He could ignore the travel ban on him from Western nations because Copenhagen is a UN conference. Meanwhile, UK prime minister Gordon Brown was expected later on Tuesday - a day earlier than originally scheduled, in an effort to give talks a bit of momentum.

Following Monday's temporary suspension of talks because of objections from African nations, supported by the wider G77/China bloc of developing countries, some sessions ran long into the night as negotiators tried to make up lost time. The conference's various working groups have been working at it for two years, producing final recommendations on issues that include deforestation, technology transfer and the registration of plans by developing countries to control their emissions. The resulting drafts do show narrowing gaps between the two disputing camps, but many of the most contentious issues are still being left on the table for the growing gaggle of environment ministers that is gathering. Ultimately, some issues may be passed up the food chain to the heads of state when they are all on site by the end of the meeting. 

Meanwhile, to make things just a bit more complicated and irritating, some 45,000 people have now registered to attend the conference. About half that total are NGO representatives and such. However, the Bella Center’s capacity regulations only permit 15,000 to attend at any time. That guarantees a lot people are going to be unhappy at any given time – and looking in through the windows or on TV monitors. NGO reps have been informed that only 1,000 at a time will be allowed in the building on Thursday and Friday - and journalists will be confined to a media centre and forbidden from mingling with the actual delegates. Even registered representatives have been forced to queue for up to four hours so they could join the throng inside the building. The real game is about to begin.

By J. Brooks Spector

For more, read the AP, the New York Times, and the BBC

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics

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