National Security Strategy: Time to contest China on climate
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently concluded the 20th Party Congress, where Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the CCP. During the gathering, Xi appointed foreign minister Wang Yi to the Politburo and current Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, to the CCP Central Committee. Both are known in international circles for their sharp-elbowed style of engagement, and their nominations would seem to signal that China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy is here to stay. While this approach isn’t winning any hearts and minds in the U.S., their diplomatic efforts in the developing world are — and that is a concern to the Biden administration.
The CCP convocation was held only days after the Biden administration announced its comprehensive National Security Strategy. As one might expect, the document highlights the challenge that China’s growing influence poses to U.S. interests. Less expected, perhaps, is the strategy’s focus on climate change as a cross-cutting concern that affects our physical, economic and geopolitical security. What the plan hints at, but doesn’t fully explore, is how we can solve for both by aggressively pursuing an edge in the sectors and industries at the heart of the global energy transition. Climate and the energy transition are at the forefront of geopolitical competition.
When it comes to China and climate change, the U.S. has traditionally emphasized cooperation and shared interests in the face of a global threat. However, the U.S. strategy makes a compelling case for rethinking this approach. Cooperation may be one way to drive international progress on climate change, but it is not the only or even most effective avenue for doing so, especially in the context of the U.S.-China relationship.
Rather, by contesting Chinese leadership in low-carbon and clean energy supply chains, the U.S. can strengthen its position in the fastest growing parts of the energy economy, while challenging China to take steps to reduce emissions at home and in their overseas financing. So, what does that look like in practice?
Domestically, the U.S. should pursue a coherent industrial policy that emphasizes clean energy and climate resilience. This will enable the U.S. not only to lead by example when it comes to emissions reductions, but expand manufacturing, trade and investment opportunities for American businesses. Together, major provisions in recently signed law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, CHIPS and Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act form the backbone for just such a clean energy industrial policy. But this momentum must be sustained and expanded. Building an innovation-commercialization-manufacturing pipeline is a long-term endeavor, not an overnight project. Many of the programs authorized under the three laws need to be funded or otherwise effected by federal agencies along with state and local governments. As the focus shifts toward implementing three sweeping pieces of legislation, it will be important to continue to maintain a deliberate focus on how these, and potential future policy actions, fit together and complement one another.
Most important, however, is the extent to which we institutionalize closer coordination between the public and private sector, especially around “challenge areas,” as the Department of Energy has begun to do with its Earth Shots and American Battery Materials initiatives. By playing to our strengths, leaning on our unparalleled network of research institutions, entrepreneurial business environment and sophisticated capital markets, the U.S. can take the lead in the race to develop, deploy and export the clean energy technologies that will power the 21st century economy.
Internationally, the U.S. must think strategically about how climate-oriented development and economic assistance affects the strength of our international relationships and partnerships. The U.S. strategy emphasizes “engaging countries on their own terms.” Recent gatherings — from the U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit and the Shangri-La Dialogue to the Summit of the Americas and the African Adaptation Summit — have provided near constant reminders of how many of our developing country partners recognize climate change as the preeminent and most pressing threat to their security. If we’re serious about these countries finding common cause in a “vision of a world that is free, open, secure, and prosperous,” we need to ensure that this vision (and the public and private investment we put behind it) reflects their priorities and concerns.
The strategy brings the security imperative of climate finance into focus, reemphasizing the U.S. pledge to provide $11.4 billion in annual support for developing country climate efforts (another strategy first). Now it is essential that the U.S. actual deliver on this commitment. Climate finance is increasingly seen as a proxy for U.S. reliability in other contexts, and our detractors, most conspicuously China, use shortfalls and missed deadlines as a wedge issue.
What’s more, smart overseas climate investments help directly address other transnational security challenges, such as food and energy insecurity (which are being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine), democratic backsliding, and the root causes of internal displacement and migration.
The predictable criticism over misguided priorities is already landing. The specious, rhetorical question being asked: Why does “climate” receive more mentions than “China” in a document focusing on U.S. national security interests? This misses the point. The strategy makes clear that the most pressing strategic challenge we face involves protecting American interests and the rules-based international order in an era of heightened geopolitical competition. Climate and the energy transition are fronts on which that contest is playing out, and strong American leadership on both counts are central to our national security.
Alex Stapleton is the senior climate policy adviser at Foreign Policy for America, where he leads the organization’s efforts to strengthen U.S. climate leadership at home and abroad, with a focus on its importance to American foreign and security policy interests. He previously worked for the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as a senior climate policy adviser at the British Embassy in Washington, counseling U.K. Government departments and officials on U.S. federal and subnational climate policy.
Alexandra Hackbarth is a senior policy adviser at the think tanks E3G. Her work has focused on the national security implications of climate change, with a focus on China and strategic rivalry. She previously served in Kabul, Afghanistan as special adviser to the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.