Pandemic and politics drive China’s Xi Jinping’s decision to avoid climate summit
Chinese President Xi Jinping has been absent from the Group of 20 summit in Rome and this week’s global climate talks in Scotland, drawing criticism from U.S. President Biden and questions about China’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and has pledged to begin reducing that output by 2030 and obtaining carbon neutrality by 2060. The U.S. and others have urged Beijing to make bigger commitments, but Xi’s administration has strongly implied those will only come in exchange for political concessions.
China has enforced tight travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic and Xi hasn’t left the country since making a January 2020 trip to neighboring Myanmar.
That was just weeks before the outbreak, believed to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, spread worldwide. China has come under heavy pressure to reveal more information about the origin of the pandemic and has been accused of mismanaging the outbreak and then seeking to cover up its mistakes.
China has also come under heavy criticism over its policies toward Muslims in its Xinjiang region and its crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong. Like all Chinese leaders, Xi is extremely image conscious and his public appearances are carefully choreographed to avoid potentially embarrassing confrontations.
His formerly heavy travel schedule took him across continents, with first lady Peng Liyuan, an accomplished musician, on hand to add a bit of glamor and a human touch.
Those travels included trips to several African nations and a meeting with the former Japanese emperor in Tokyo. Xi rode in a gilded carriage with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and paid a visit to North Korea’s capital that included a ride through city streets lined by tens of thousands of cheering citizens of the hard-line communist state.
Such travels have underscored China’s more assertive foreign policy, as the world’s second-largest economy seeks to exert its influence beyond East Asia with Xi’s signature “Belt and Road” overseas infrastructure investment program.
The president’s decision not to attend the meetings in Rome and Glasgow seems at odds with that policy, although Xi isn’t alone in staying away. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has aligned with China in opposing U.S. influence in world affairs, also remained at home.
“I think it’s been a big mistake, quite frankly, for China, with respect to China not showing up,” Biden said Monday at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.
“They’ve lost an ability to influence people around the world and all the people here at COP — the same way, I would argue, with regard to Russia,” Biden said.
Responding to Biden’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Wednesday said China’s response to climate change “is concrete” and pointed to recent achievements in reforestation and renewable energy.
Friction in bilateral relations is complicating cooperation on climate change between the two countries, said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University.
Biden has taken COP26 as “an important occasion for China and the U.S. to compete for global influence, ideology and image,” said Shi, who attributed Xi’s absence from the meetings to China’s “zero tolerance” approach to dealing with the pandemic, which has been largely controlled within the country.
Despite not leaving China, Xi has remained in contact with foreign heads of state through virtual meetings, said Zhao Kejin, who teaches international relations at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
The U.S. wants Chinese cooperation in responding to climate change, but Beijing is also looking for changes in U.S. policy, including its support for the self-governing island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, Zhao said.
“This result was produced by the U.S. failing to integrate ties with China into its overall multilateral relationships,” Zhao said.