For US, Taiwan Is a Climate Ally, Not a Pawn

For US, Taiwan Is a Climate Ally, Not a Pawn
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

It is hard to ethically justify trading away the rights of Taiwan’s 24 million people in exchange for Chinese commitments to reduce carbon output by a few percentage points.

U.S. President Biden’s China strategy leans heavily on alliances and partners throughout the Indo-Pacific, emphasizing a return to predictability after the Trump years. With climate change “at the center” of his foreign and national security policy, it is almost certain that in this new, contentious era, Biden will press China on reducing its carbon footprint.

Biden intends to balance the dual priorities of tackling climate change and confronting China’s threats to Indo-Pacific security. Some foreign policy commentators have argued that climate change should give way to the goal of regional security. Others imply that the Biden administration must ignore Chinese threats to focus on other salient problems such as climate change. All too frequently, however, discussions of making concessions to China seem to begin with reconsidering the U.S. commitment to defending Taiwan.

Climate change is far from the first topic that has threatened to derail American support for Taiwan. International relations theorists have long argued that U.S. commitment to defending Taiwan must inevitably give way in the face of China’s continued economic and military growth. Yet claims that the United States should surrender Taiwan to China were wrong then, and they remain so today.

Unlike trade balance or intellectual property protection, climate change is not a U.S.-China bilateral issue. It is a global problem which will affect China regardless of the status of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Rising sea levels and desertification are expected to disproportionately affect China, with its mostly coastal population. A net food importer, China might find it more and more difficult to feed its population as climate change threatens global crop production.

Both Bangladesh and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, lying in China’s proverbial backyard, have dense populations likely to be displaced by sea level change. The prospect of a small portion of these populations turning into refugees will be a nightmare. If China wants to mitigate these problems, it will work on reducing its carbon footprint of its own volition.

Evidence suggests that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a vested interest in allaying climate change. China plans to construct six to eight nuclear power plants before 2025 and build smart grids in cities to better utilize alternative energy sources. But the ambitions are often overshadowed, as the CCP values stability and economic growth over almost all other policy priorities. Solar is a growth industry in China, but the government is also building more and more coal-fired power plants.

Because China’s energy policy remains a matter of domestic politics, negotiations alone are unlikely to change it. The U.S. is an example of this: the Trump administration’s decision to leave the Paris Accord did not stop other governments from putting climate change on their agenda, nor did it hamper the global private sector from meeting the growing demand for sustainable solutions.

At the same time, the U.S. abdication from leadership on climate change over the last four years did not cause China to rise to the occasion, demonstrating the conflicting approaches toward the subject that exist within the CCP.

Perhaps most compellingly, for the U.S., sacrificing Taiwan on the altar of climate negotiations would be a moral travesty. Mitigating climate change is often put in a quantitative context: the percentage of GDP lost as a result of flooding, or the billions spent on refugee resettlement. Yet these reductionist lenses ignore the most fundamental goal of resisting climate catastrophe: avoiding human suffering.

The growing movement for environmental justice recognizes that climate change is a moral as well as an economic problem. The U.S. President’s climate action plan centers on finding solutions that do not come at the expense of marginalized populations in the U.S. In this sense, it is hard to ethically justify trading away the rights of Taiwan’s 24 million people in exchange for Chinese commitments to reduce carbon output by a few percentage points.

Biden’s decision to prioritize climate change in his national security strategy is wise. The administration enjoys support of two thirds of Americans on this urgent issue. Moreover, climate change offers a chance for Biden to re-engage valuable European and Asian partners on common grounds, including Taiwan.

Because of its unique international status, Taiwan has been largely left out of the global climate dialogue, even though its government has repeatedly expressed the desire to cooperate with other states. The country is transitioning to wind and solar, but still heavily depends on coal. If Biden wants to make progress on tackling climate change, it would be best to see Taiwan as an ally — not a pawn.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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