Amid US-China arms race, experts call for cooperation on climate crisis to come first

Posted on : 2023-10-27 16:27 KST Modified on : 2023-10-27 16:27 KST
Experts gathered at the 2023 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium delved into the topic of disarmament and climate cooperation
Chungnam National University professor Kim Jih-un speaks during a panel session titled “US-China Relations: Are the Arms Race and Climate Cooperation Compatible?” moderated by Youngsan University professor Chang Eun-joo (left) with discussants John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus, and Renmin University professor Li Qingsi at the 2023 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium on Oct. 25. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Chungnam National University professor Kim Jih-un speaks during a panel session titled “US-China Relations: Are the Arms Race and Climate Cooperation Compatible?” moderated by Youngsan University professor Chang Eun-joo (left) with discussants John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus, and Renmin University professor Li Qingsi at the 2023 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium on Oct. 25. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

On Wednesday, the first day of the 2023 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium, panelists on the first session titled “US-China relations: Are the Arms Race and Climate Cooperation Compatible?” urged the two countries to embark on urgent climate cooperation first and foremost.

During this discussion, which was held at Nurimaru APEC House in the Haeundae District of Busan, Chungnam National University political science and diplomacy professor Kim Jih-un said climate cooperation was being affected by the strategic competition between the US and China.

“The US has been of the attitude that it won’t concede on other matters for the sake of climate change cooperation. China has also been of the attitude that climate change cooperation cannot be free from the framework of US-China relations,” Kim noted. “With the US-China arms race ongoing, it is true that solutions or tricks to drive disarmament seem few and far between.”

In other words, Kim argued that Washington and Beijing won’t stop their competition for hegemony for the sake of climate cooperation.

Discussants John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus, and Renmin University professor Li Qingsi agreed that the US and China were unlikely to reduce their armament.

Feffer said governments and corporations will continue to try to expand their military supplies, striving to obtain budgets for defense rather than climate change.

“Most Chinese would agree with the official government position that since the gap between China and the US is still too huge — particularly in terms of nuclear warheads, aircraft carriers, striking groups — that it is not yet time to reach that type of agreement between these two countries [concerning disarmament,” said Li, predicting that Beijing will continue to build up its armament in order to narrow the gap with Washington.

Panelists said the US and China should focus on climate cooperation first rather than on disarmament, a matter on which a quick agreement is unlikely.

“Climate change is a more agreeable topic between China and the US. That’s why American presidential envoys came to China several times no matter how difficult the official bilateral relations,” Li remarked. “The Chinese government would be happy to talk with its counterpart.”

“Because of the history of politics and how we get things done, especially in the United States, in order to promote arms control agreements. Between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, we had to delink that issue — in other words, separate that issue from all other issues [. . .] to focus only on arms control agreements,” stated Feffer, suggesting it may be possible for Washington and Beijing to focus on climate cooperation by approaching disarmament and climate cooperation separately.

Panelists pointed out that the arms race between the US and China had a significant negative impact on climate change.

“Greenhouse gases are emitted when military facilities are built, when wars are waged, and during postwar recovery,” Kim stated, pointing out that “F-35s have a mileage of 0.6 miles per gallon, which is one-fiftieth that of a car.” He went on, “The US military emitted 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases while stationed in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2017. This is equivalent to the total greenhouse gases 257 million cars would emit in a year.”

“Russia and Ukraine emitted 120 million tons of additional greenhouse gases in their first year of war. This is equivalent to the total greenhouse gases Belgium emits in a year,” Kim said.

Experts argued that the US and China should first cooperate in the field of economics to alleviate the climate crisis.

“Lithium batteries made in Sichuan are used in Tesla cars, and water from the Yangtze River is used to make these batteries. But last year, due to climate change, the water level in the Yangzi River dropped, disrupting battery production,” Kim commented. “Like this, if US and Chinese corporations understood that it is economically beneficial for them to respond to climate change and join forces, it will produce good results.”

“This may be a big ask, but all it will take is the United States offering some kind of olive branch to China to indicate a seriousness of approach,” said John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus. “What does that olive branch look like? Outside of the issue of climate change, of climate cooperation, it could be something as simple as the removal of tariffs that have been imposed on Chinese goods or the reduction of trade penalties, especially on high-tech items for export to China, including computer chips.”

“With that kind of olive branch that establishes a more positive relationship or more positive environment of cooperation between the United States and China, I think we can set into motion a delinked approach to just focusing on climate cooperation between the two countries,” Feffer argued.

Some experts suggested that there needed to be efforts and participation on the part of civil society in both countries. “There needs to be solidarity between people in the US and people in China,” said Kim. “China won’t be able to ignore the voice of the people for the sake of legitimacy.”

To this, Feffer responded that while there are indeed civil society movements in China and in the United States that have to a certain extent cooperated, this “is a huge problem, and unfortunately, because it’s a huge problem, it requires state participation.”

By Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter

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