This post is part 2 of 2 in a series of posts regarding the goals and incentives of the PRC. Last week we took a look at the PRC’s economic and military goals, (see that post here if you missed it), and this week we’re going to be examining its environmental and foreign policy goals.
Area 3: Pollution and Climate
When I first read the announcement by the PRC saying that one of its main focuses is to cut down on pollution, I initially (as I’m sure most people did) assumed that this claim was just another assertion that would never really be followed through on. Fortunately for the world, this is most likely not the case.
The history of Chinese pollution goes back a long way. Like, really far back. As Elizabeth Economy (who is sadly not an economist) at the Council on Foreign Relations put it, “China’s current environmental situation is the result not only of policy choices made today but also of attitudes, approaches, and institutions that have evolved over centuries.” China has had a major pollution problem for a long time, but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that it actually recognized these issues and setup some environmental institutions. Since then, the situation in China has only escalated further. So how bad is it?
To begin with, China is the world’s #1 emitter of greenhouse gasses by far. There’s not even a competition (likely because the PRC burned all the competition away with acid rain). In 2014, China accounted for a staggering total of 27 percent of global (yes, global) greenhouse gas emissions. Then there’s the air problem. When 2015 came around China consumed 17% more coal than was expected, only furthering a smog issue so bad citizens had deemed it the “airpocalypse”. Is the nickname warranted, you ask?
Of course it is. The nickname is more than warranted. The concentration of hazardous particles in China is forty times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization — a serious health and safety hazard to everyone. One recent study from Berkeley estimated that roughly 17% of all deaths in China are caused by air pollution. Despite consistently leading the world in being toxic to everything that breathes, China didn’t use it’s four tier alert system until December of last year; despite the fact that the system has existed since early 2013.
So what could possibly make me think that the PRC will follow through on it’s claims to change after so many years of ignoring the problem? A few things, beginning with the fact that incentives to change are at their highest levels to date. In recent years China has seen it’s people protest (and also die), and it’s influence on the international stage diminish because of a bad environmental policy. Countries won’t do as much business with China because they know the kind of earth-altering regime they’re supporting, and the PRC’s agricultural market is suffering dramatically, with almost one fifth of the soil contaminated. Overall, a bad environmental policy is costing the country between 3-10% of its gross national income: that’s about 1.5 trillion dollars. China cares a lot about its economy, so as time goes forward it’s likely that things will start to change.
Signs are also beginning to show that Chinese officials have at least internalized the massive problem at hand. In China’s recent Five Year Plan, it outlined a goal to reduce factory emissions of tiny harmful particulate matter, (PM2.5) (a major cause of air pollution), by 25%. This is the first time any real metric has been provided, reflecting a changing attitude among Beijing officials.
How does this affect the United States? Well to begin with, the US has actually been directly harmed by the smog problem, as recent studies have indicated that pollution from China is being blown across the ocean and onto our western shores. What is the US doing about it? Sadly, there’s not really much it can do. While the US government has been reporting on air quality and safety in China since 2008, it can’t really sanction a country over mere air standards. Really all the US can do is try to use it’s influence to bring this issue to light on a national stage.
Interestingly enough, China has actually recently responded to the US’ monitoring of Chinese air quality, (despite the fact that it’s been happening since 2008), saying that the US is illegally interfering in domestic affairs. Though obviously this is not the case, it certainly will be interesting to see how this pans out in the future. Just something to keep an eye on.
Okay. We’re down to our fourth and final category: China’s foreign policy goals as a whole.
Area 4: Overall Foreign Policy
In years past, China’s foreign policy has been largely to take the back seat, so to speak. Since the economy has been such a focus for the PRC during the last 15 years, China has been relatively happy to let the rest of the world solve most of its own problems. Despite this historical indifference, attitudes in Beijing are recently beginning to change. Since Xi came to power, China is beginning to play a more active, innovative role in international affairs, and has adopted a new global perspective (though president Xi Jinping says the core guiding principles of promoting a fair and peaceful international order will much remain the same). Overall, there have been three main changes in the PRC’s foreign policy outlook:
- Instead of looking at the world from a China-centered view, the chinese government is now beginning to see the world in a broader sense. In the past year alone, it’s become apparent that the PRC is allowing itself to look outside of it’s own borders. Moving forward, we can only expect to see more of this.
- Recently China has become much more conscious of international issues and is more willing to take responsibility for things. This definitely mostly stems from a change in outlook. Whereas a decade ago China was mostly focused on it’s own economy, it now seems that Beijing is more willing to act on an international scale.
- China is placing greater priority on innovation and awareness. This can be seen by its new initiatives such as first-lady diplomacy and an increased determination to pursue what Xi has called “a new type of great-power relationship” with the United States.
Will this new style of foreign policy involve any aggression?
While it’s hard to say for certain, the most likely answer is no. China has made it clear that it’s plan is not to get in everyone’s way; in fact it seems China’s plan may be almost the opposite. On June 27 at the 2013 World Peace Forum in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the PRC planned to become a great world power, but that to accomplish this it would have to do so unlike previous great countries had. Instead, China would (without taking sides in global conflicts) pursue a peaceful rise to hegemony. Other statements from government officials have reflected this peace-centered approach to growth, and the most recent Chinese Five Year Plan made it very clear that China meant no harm. As with military growth, the PRC most likely plans to slowly improve its global influence while maintaining peace with all nations possible.
As far as the US specifically goes, China believes that diplomacy will best ensure its prosperity. Moving forward, the PRC plans to establish better relations with the US so that it can continue to develop its economy and maritime control. But China probably wouldn’t be the only country benefitting from a closer relationship: closer ties with China could also gain the US greater influence in Asia and an economic upper hand. In order to actually achieve this better relationship with China, two main things must happen:
- There has to be an increase in free trade and China has to stop subsidizing all of its industries. This could be a possible downside for the US, depending on the way you look at things, but if the US and China are to have a tighter relationship, market forces have to dictate economic relations.
- Both nations would have to work to increase bilateral communication at all levels of government. This would show a greater connection between the two governments and would help promote ties between the people of both countries. It will also help politicians on both sides better understand each other, softening potential points of contention and helping to prevent conflict from escalating.
Overall, China’s current foreign policy is relatively simple: to continue to promote its interests and global influence while maintaining as much peace as possible. It’s not too ambitious, and is at the same time not too withdrawn.
Well, that’s it for this series. Make sure to keep an eye out in the coming weeks for more on this year’s resolution.