April 8, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Climate change politics and the role of China: a window of opportunity to gain soft power?

This is a guest post by Adrian Rauchfleisch (National Taiwan University) & Mike S. Schäfer (University of Zürich)

In our new publication we analyse the nexus between climate change and soft power with specific emphasis on China. We discuss the role of soft power in the Chinese context and elucidate how international climate change politics is an important arena in which soft power can be won. We argue that the current political situation represents a “window of opportunity” for China to expand its soft power substantially both in degree and scope. In line with this thesis, so far, China has reacted swiftly after the election of US president Donald Trump and aims to present itself as the future climate leader.

With regards to climate change politics, the world has turned upside down. On December 12, 2015, the “Paris Agreement” was formulated at the 21st “Conference of the Parties” (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in which the 195 participating countries agreed on a roadmap to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to replace the “Kyoto Protocol” (CarbonBrief 2015). Eighteen months later, however, in June 2017, newly elected president Donald Trump announced the US would pull out of the agreement (The Guardian 2016), drawing criticism from many heads of state, political parties and stakeholders around the globe (World Economic Forum 2017). At around the same time, Trump selected Scott Pruitt—a pronounced climate change denialist with connections to the fossil fuel industry—to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Davenport and Lipton 2016), proposed significant funding cuts for climate change research (Grennfieldboyce 2017) and greenlighted an oil pipeline project previously stopped because of environmental concerns (Holland and Volcovici 2017). With these decisions, the Trump administration reversed course compared to its predecessor, and deviated from a position towards climate protection that had found widespread international consensus at the 2015 Paris summit.

Another international player positioned itself in a notably different way at the same time: China. After China had tried to position itself as an international leader in climate change politics in the run-up to Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009 with limited success (Conrad 2012), it renewed those efforts. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited other countries recently, environmental issues and climate protection were often on the agenda, and, according to Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, the country promised to continue its fight against climate change “whatever the circumstances” (Shankleman 2016). After Donald Trump’s election, Chinese officials even reminded him that global warming is an existing, serious problem that needs to be dealt with through international cooperation (Phillips 2016).

China’s difficulties in acquiring soft power

China’s more active role in climate change politics, and its increased activity and different approach to international relations in general, is in line with the country’s goal to increase its soft power. The concept of soft power was introduced by Joseph Nye towards the end of the cold war, referring to “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment” (Nye 2008, p. 94). Democratic values and the cultural industry of Hollywood, Japan or South Korea were seen as major resources of soft power with global appeal (Ryoo 2009; Otmazgin 2007). Authoritarian countries such as China traditionally lacked these resources (Wang 2008). In the current debate about whether China will be successful in its public diplomacy efforts, many doubt that China has successfully gained soft power (e.g., Blanchard and Lu 2012; Heng 2010; Paradise 2009; Creemers 2015).

In China today, the idea of “soft power” has become important in various realms of society. First, it arrived in Chinese politics about 10 years ago. In 2007, a Chinese government official mentioned soft power for the first time publicly (Wang 2008). During the plenary session of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, China’s President Xi Jinping mentioned the goal to“increase the national cultural soft power” (提高国家文化软实力tigao guojia wenhua ruan shili) (Xi 2012). However, scholarship so far shows that China has had difficulty to gain soft power based on any of the resources (e.g. culture) described by Nye.

China’s window of opportunity to gain soft power

Our thesis is that the current political situation represents a “window of opportunity” for China to expand its soft power substantially both in degree and scope. With the changed position of the US towards climate change under the Trump administration, China can re-position itself to take over a stronger leadership role in the international political efforts to mitigate climate change. For a number of reasons, it is conceivable that the Chinese government could seize this opportunity. The issue of climate change has been recognized by Chinese politics as well as by the country’s public and its media as relevant and important (Pew Research Center 2016; see also the Figure). The Chinese position in international climate change negotiations has changed from being passive and reactive towards being more proactive and constructive.

Figure: Number of Chinese articles in the press covering climate change and air pollution. Data from CNKI database

Xi Jinping has not only presented China as climate change leader in the international arena (e.g., at the World Economic Forum 2017), but also domestically. In his speech at the opening session of the 19th Communist Party congress in October 2017, he explicitly acknowledged this new role (“driving seat”) and even critically concluded that “any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us” (Huang and Lahiri 2017). The future will show whether China can follow up its words with actions. At least for the next few years, China has the incentives and opportunities to do so. It is an economic opportunity, it will strengthen the domestic legitimacy of the CCP, and it will eventually help China to gain soft power.

Xi Jinping’s successful expansion of his own governing term represents an interesting conundrum with regards to soft power and the different resources it rests on: On the one hand, it may be beneficial for Chinese soft power to have Xi in office, as he is a noted and outspoken proponent of climate protection. On the other hand, changing the mode of governing China to accommodate Xi’s rule may be seen elsewhere as an (other) indicator of an undemocratic political system.

The post is based on a short blog post written by Adrian Rauchfleisch in January 2017: An updated article was published in the International Communication of Chinese Culture.


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Image: Hot summer sunset in Beijing

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