‘Situational Engagement’

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Legal scholar Pitman Potter espouses engagement with China on issues of mutual interest, while reserving the ability to respond on disagreements

Part 1 of a series on the pros and cons of reengagement with China. Read part 2, Engagement with China Is Not an End in Itself

Quick take:

  • Although China has lately become more alienated from the international system, neither climate change nor the pandemic can be dealt with effectively without it.
  • Beijing's COVID response has been a combination of initial containment and control, gradual openness, and tentative international cooperation.
  • China prioritizes economic interests when considering any climate commitments and is not swayed by international requests.

USA and China trade relations, cooperation strategy. US America and China flags on chess king on a chessboard Photo Getty Images

HONOLULU (Dec. 21, 2021) — This July, as the COVID-19 pandemic pressed on for a second year, Xi Jinping had a clear message to deliver to the world in his speech honoring the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding. “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us,” China’s leader said.

The sentiment behind those words epitomizes Beijing’s stance on foreign policy issues and define its political decisions, according to noted legal scholar Dr. Pitman Potter. “What we're seeing more recently is a sense of alienation from the international system in an attempt to go in perhaps a more independent direction, and this affects China's responses on both the COVID file and the climate change file,” Potter said in a recent East-West Center Insights talk. “Our challenge is reengagement, because neither one of these issues—pandemic or climate—can be dealt with effectively without China.”

Limited pandemic cooperation

Potter, a visiting East-West Center fellow and professor emeritus of law at the University of British Columbia, is an internationally recognized expert in Chinese law whose research spans policy, trade and investment, and dispute resolution, among other topics. Reviewing a detailed timeline of China’s responses to both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, Potter said that Beijing’s international cooperation on both issues has been limited. 

When the pandemic first emerged in early 2020, he said, China’s response focused on containment and control. By that summer, official rhetoric changed slightly to take a more cooperative tone, as documented by a white paper published by the State Council Information Office.

Still, Beijing has faced strong international pushback for its lack of transparency during the pandemic, its repression of citizen reporters and criticism of doctors who sounded the alarm during initial stages of the contagion, and its refusal to share data. “Make no mistake, China made serious and long-ranging efforts to control the pandemic,” Potter said, “but the white paper avoids numerous and sensitive questions about the regime’s conduct during the initial discovery and response.”

Last May, China rejected calls for further investigation into the origins of COVID-19. And while China did provide a genetic sequence of the virus to help scientists recognize it around the world, the country has continued to resist laboratory audits and decline requests to disclose case files.

“We've seen references to state sovereignty and patient confidentiality as explanations for not doing those sorts of things,” Potter said, noting that China continues to champion its authoritarian response to COVID and its sharing of vaccines with developing countries. “What we see in China's COVID response is a combination of initial containment and control, gradual delivery of information and modest cooperation, and then a bit of a withdrawal from that cooperation in more recent times,” he said.

Mixed message on climate

When it comes to climate, China prioritizes its economic interests when considering any commitments, insisting that the US and China as having “common but differentiated responsibilities” in regard to climate change policies.

China has committed to ending its investment in coal fired power plants abroad, but has been resistant to revisiting the 2015 Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goals and did not sign on to the Global Methane Pledge that was signed by more than a hundred countries during the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland. However, just a few days later, the United States and China announced a joint agreement to cut emissions within this decade and China vocalized a commitment to reduce methane.

A long-standing relationship and “personalized diplomacy” between US Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his counterpart in China, Xie Zhenhua, has made a significant difference this year, said Potter. “But one of the questions is going to be, what about the bureaucracies back home, and how are they going to embrace these agreements?”

To truly re-engage, Potter argues, the US must maintain its focus on the countries’ mutual interests. “The issue really here is about restoring a process for what I call ‘situational engagement,’ he said. That means engagement on issues of mutual interest, while reserving the capacity to respond on issues where we disagree.”

 

Watch the full EWC Insights event with Dr. Pitman Potter: