The Ecological Stakes of America’s New Cold War with China

12 Min Read

October 12, 2022

Andrew Pendakis is Associate Professor of Theory and Rhetoric at Brock University. His writings on topics ranging from dialectics to plastics have appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly, Jacobin, Third Text, E-Flux, Critical Inquiry, and Postcolonial Studies. He is presently completing a book on the contemporary relevance of Marx to our everyday conception of ourselves.

In 2019, Nature published a piece by leading climate scientists that concluded with an unequivocal declaration of crisis: we are, they wrote, “in a state of planetary emergency”, one that poses a direct “existential threat to civilization.”[1] Three years later, this statement, made in what is arguably the world’s most prestigious multi-disciplinary science journal, has largely been ignored by governments. The failure of much of the West to process the scale and urgency of this warning is clearly demonstrated by the tenor of recent foreign policy positions—particularly in increasingly aggressive postures toward China. We know that since 2012 the United States, in its ‘Pivot to Asia’, has explicitly shifted its attention away from the war on terror and the safeguarding of its economic interests in the Middle East, toward China and the ostensible threat it poses to US hegemony and the international ‘rules-based order.’[2] This shift has been registered at every level of the US state, impacting domestic economic and political policy, the discourse of civil servants and politicians, and the strategic initiatives of its intelligence and security agencies. Belying the idea that in liberal democracies the strategic priorities of the state evolve at a distance from a mostly autonomous cultural sphere, the reflection of this shift in the content of our news cycles has been impossible to miss: where we were once exposed to a near continuous stream of images of threatening Arab crowds, we are now punctually confronted with shot after shot of stern-looking Chinese policemen, aerial footage of hazily identified missile installations, and dystopian urban hellscapes clouded by smoke and dust.[3]

This turn was, of course, in many ways predictable. Plagued by a series of crises—low growth, the financial meltdown of 2008, the emergence of para-fascist domestic political actors, rampant economic inequality, and a badly bungled pandemic response—America has begun to realize the scale of China’s economic and political achievements and even the clear advantages some aspects of its system have over its own. For all the talk of China’s ‘brutal’ Wuhan lockdown, and despite it’s early mishandling of the pandemic, we can assume based on the situation in India that China’s Covid policy saved the lives not of thousands, but millions of people. Over the last forty years, it has radically reduced poverty for more people in a shorter time than any other country; even strong critics of the CCP like sinologist David Shambaugh admit that “this is an impressive achievement, unmatched in history.”[4] The scale and design-savviness of its cities and infrastructure have as one of their primary side-effects the production of a new sensation, one not experienced in the West for nearly half a millennium—namely, an uncomfortable feeling of belatedness, of gazing at a future that may or may not include ‘us.’

Beijing, January 2018. Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash.

Though many have fallen into the trap of seeing America’s newfound interest in China’s human rights record—after 20 years of silence on it—as a disinterested ethical epiphany, sociologist Ho-Fung Hung has shown that its foreign policy has altered in step with the material interests of US corporations and their fortunes in China.[5] Silence on human rights for as long as they were making obscene profits; loud denunciation the moment China’s industrial development allowed it to substitute its own products for those previously sold to it by the West (the U.K and especially Australia have followed very similar arcs). In just a few years the Harvard Business Review has gone from publishing essays entitled, “Why China Can’t Innovate” (2014)[6] to “China’s New Innovation Advantage” (2020)[7]: the emergence of tech giants like Huawei, Tencent, and Alibaba, and the prospect of billions of dollars of continued state investment in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and quantum computing is in many ways the reason for America’s recently announced Build Back Better initiative. Add to this situation racial overtones of thwarted natural hierarchy—the sudden arrival of a non-white hegemon—and we can begin to see traditional geo-political rivalry jostling with white supremacist discomfort at a shift in the fundamental rules of the game.

But America’s need for the meaningfulness of a new enemy, and the sudden panicked recognition of the damage it has done to itself through forty years of neoliberal austerity, are happening at the worst of times, a moment in history when there has never been a greater need for systematic international collaboration. What this means is that America is openly antagonizing China at precisely the moment it requires an unprecedented level of cooperation from it. This deeply irrational position—one immediately intuitable to children on the level of the political economy of the schoolground—remains hidden for adults behind the apparent common sense of Realpolitik, great-power competition, national security discourse, and liberal idealist fantasies of Western exceptionalism, as well as simple-minded, ahistorical oppositions between authoritarianism and democracy and communism and markets, that obscure far more than they reveal.

America, then, is confronted by an uncomfortable fact: the future of ‘civilization as we know it’ rests directly on choices being made today by the legislative and executive bodies of the Chinese Communist Party. As sociologists Li and Shapiro bluntly put it: “the future of the planet hinges on the Chinese state’s efforts to go genuinely green.”[8] China is responsible for roughly 27 per cent of the planet’s yearly emissions, making it the world’s leading emitter.[9] Though this number is often cited to shift the blame for climate change away from the West, in fact China’s per capita emissions are lower those of Canada, the United States, Japan, Germany, Australia, and many other countries. China is responsible for approximately 13 per cent of cumulative historical emissions, while North America, Australia, and Europe account for about half.[10] At the same time, we need to face the fact that China’s present emissions are in many ways ours; roughly 50 per cent of the objects floating around the average American home were manufactured in China.[11] As Guardian columnist Larry Elliot has said, “It’s no use telling developing nations to decarbonise. The West must accept it bears the bulk of the blame for the climate crisis.”[12]

None of this changes the fact, however, that emissions globally have to fall immediately and dramatically for critical tipping points to be avoided. The rational (and politically just) solution, then, is for America (and other western countries) to help China reduce its emissions, not only by changing the way it speaks to and relates to China, but by directly paying it to do so. Alongside massive green investment domestically—green infrastructure and retrofitting, high graduated income tax, even expropriation of incorrigibly polluting or recalcitrant corporations—as well as mass political mobilizations and serious state-mandated shifts in our patterns of consumption, America should seriously consider paying China to de-carbonize or immediately begin to coordinate huge public-private joint-venture projects with a view to effectively greening China (as well as the United States and Europe) in the shortest time possible. One easy way to contribute would be to purchase billions of dollars of cheap, efficient Chinese solar panels, electric cars, and windmill components.[13] This is exactly the kind of ‘win-win’ policy that Chinese negotiators frequently invoke at summits. The idea—again foreign only to the most sophisticated of adults—is that cohabitation of the planet needn’t be a zero-sum death match. What partisans of Realpolitik consistently fail to consider is the way that performances of strength on the part of a state can produce in its competitor the kind of aggressive behaviour it is ostensibly trying to pre-empt. It’s precisely by playing tough—Donald Trump style—that America pushes Beijing into a corner and incentivizes similar kinds of behaviour.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has chosen to frame green investment in nostalgic, nationalist terms, invoking the prospect of a world in which “the blades for wind turbines [are]…built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”[14] This is a picturesque and perhaps politically winning image, but as serious climate policy it is absurd. As Apple CEO Tim Cook and others have repeatedly said, there are aspects of the Chinese industrial system—its economies of scale, infrastructure, skills, legal framework, and labour costs—that the United States simply can’t match.[15] These allow for the production of green technologies to take place at a fraction of the cost and at far greater speeds than could be achieved in America within the foreseeable future. Years will be wasted, and unimaginably large amounts of carbon emitted, simply trying to build from scratch a domestic green infrastructure still too close to extractivist industrialist models to be effective. The process as presently designed will enrich billionaires like Elon Musk and other corporate actors, push private over collective solutions, and in the end produce far less green infrastructure at a far greater cost. As Biden evokes the image of a renewed, industrial heartland—now painted forest-green—he has at the same time banned U.S imports of vital solar panel materials from Xinjiang. In other words, the administration is actively attempting to interrupt the viability of the companies producing these panels, attempting to re-brand them as “Dirty Solar” in the same way Canadian tar sands producers did the oil of Saudi Arabia. The sudden emergence of concern on the part of Americans for the conditions in which their products are made is heartwarming but is in the end as unconvincing as its passionate new interest in the rights of Muslim minorities, a shift uncomfortably preceded by roughly thirty years in which it was the world’s leading murderer of Arabs. Joe Biden’s recent fist bump with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince reminds us that when America needs something (in this case cheap oil) it has never had a problem dealing with even the most problematic of regimes. Those on the left should be committed to attending to labour conditions and violations wherever they take place, but we must also constantly be vigilant to the ways institutions largely indifferent to such conditions selectively weaponize them in plans for continued domination and war.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden greet each other with a fist bump at Al-Salam palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Bandar Aljaloud/AP).

We should be careful, of course, not to trivialize human rights concerns or frame them merely as dark Western aspersions. Certainly, there are valid human rights concerns in China, just as there are in Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and Israel (and the United States itself). America goes out of its way not to embarrass internationally these allies and continues to supply them with weapons and aid. Why does it depart from these habits with China? Hank Paulson, Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush and the mind behind the extremely effective US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue, has written about the ways working with the Chinese government often requires a certain precise attention to optics that makes backroom deals, carefully considered concessions, and good faith negotiations far more productive than public denunciations, threats, and shaming.[16] In a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, Madeleine Albright suggested that for the foreseeable future for US-China relations “considerations of human rights should be at the top of the agenda, instead of an afterthought.”[17] Putting aside the remarkable hypocrisy of someone whose role in the placing of sanctions on Iraq had brutal effects on hundreds of thousands of children, this sentence reveals her to be wholly oblivious to the changed conjuncture produced by the existential urgency of climate change. Climate change is not a box on a diplomatic checklist: it’s now the checklist itself. Albright can be seen to be right, but only on the condition that we recognize that climate change is itself the greatest human rights catastrophe we have ever faced.

Climate change is not a box on a diplomatic checklist: it’s now the checklist itself.

Climate experts like Angela Hsu[18] and Barbara Finamore[19] have persuasively argued there are good reasons to believe that it is China, and not the United States that will actually meet its climate objectives. While Donald Trump was pulling America out of the Paris Agreements, encouraging fossil fuels, and dismantling the EPA, Xi Jinping has committed China to peak emissions by 2030 and net carbon neutrality by 2060. To the extent that America’s liberal democratic system is hamstrung by the dysfunctional internal dynamics of diarchy, nothing prevents green policies passed by a Democratic administration from being cancelled by a Republican successor. In addition to this, insofar as America is best taxonomized as a plutocracy, one deeply saturated by neoliberal logics, even the laws passed by establishment Democratic administrations stand to be watered down market-based solutions with no real political scope or legislative teeth. Whatever the political limits and drawbacks of China’s one-party state, it is able to decisively formulate radical policies with a scope and speed unimaginable in America. Because there is a complex, negotiated interstice between the interests of corporations and the rationality of the party, the latter has both the power and the authority to pass sweeping laws and, if need arise, issue harsh punishments to those who fail to comply. Its SOEs, of course, are also far more pliable to state demands than are private American corporations. American liberal democracy reflects the opinions of a population, 30 per cent of which does not believe in climate change.[20] Even more concerning, perhaps, is the fact that less than 30 per cent of Americans would be willing “to pay $10 a month to fight climate change.”[21] China’s secular, socialist government, meanwhile, is largely free from the religious and free-market fundamentalism that drives so much denialism; it also happens to govern a population, the vast majority of which believes in anthropogenic climate change and is far more anxious about the public perception of its policies than most Western observers understand.[22] Part of the impetus for the Chinese government to transition to green technologies, of course, derives from its sense that clean skies and rivers are issues of ultimate concern to the population. But climate action is also incentivized by the desire of the party to remain in power and on the basis of the idea that its legitimacy is founded directly on performance; failure to act has existential consequences for it, not merely political ones (a four-year wait for re-election, as in the West). One needn’t desire this kind of model for one’s own country, nor even admire it, to see its potential advantages in the context of planetary climate crisis. From a strategic global perspective not to leverage these advantages would be foolish.

In fact, the numbers seem to suggest that in terms of commitment to change, the momentum is on the side of China. In 2020, China installed more wind energy capacity than the rest of the world combined.[23] It has more installed solar power capacity than any other country in the world (almost double than the whole of the EU) and produces 80 per cent of the world’s solar cells.[24] According to Bloomberg, “there were about 425,000 electric buses in service in the world’s cities [in 2018]. Almost all of them—99 per cent of them—were in China.”[25] It is still heavily reliant on coal but has begun to reduce this reliance in recent years and has now committed to de-couple BRI expansion from the construction of new coal plants. Though China’s development has triggered an uneven, but certainly widespread Western-style consumerism, it has begun to implement ambitious recycling programs with political and social complexions—involving close supervision by neighbourhood committees, strong exercise of communal pressure, mass surveillance, and serious punishments for offenders—that are unthinkable in the context of an American society founded on axiomatic ideals of individualism, personal freedom, and unchecked rights to consumption.[26] For an older generation, and despite the controversial political legacy of Mao, the Maoist tradition has nevertheless laid down residual cultural values of collectivism, frugality, and self-sacrifice, that could easily dovetail with injunctions to carefully recycle, reduce, and re-use.[27] There is still an enormous distance to go, and no guarantees of success, but there are signs of a genuine shift in the way that both the state and the population understand the urgency of these questions.

In 2019, Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration released a report, two conclusions of which stood out. The first was that the scope of the change needed to avert climate chaos will involve inter-state cooperation and a mobilization of resources, knowledge, technology, and people on scales that have no peacetime precedent.[28] This is telling because within the liberal tradition the word ‘mobilization’ can only be imagined in the template of war. It turns out that for liberals, mobilization is intrinsically illiberal: a fully mobilized society is one that has crossed into territories of collective compulsion, ideology, and violence deeply antithetical to the business-as-usual of liberal democracy. It is a society that has fused into the anti-democratic figure of an undifferentiated whole. This fear of fused sovereignty co-exists with a strange nostalgia for its moral grandeur: WW2 is remembered as much as a risky state of exception as it is the heroic acme of global liberalism (its last great moment). If liberal democracy is incapable of imagining mobilization outside of the parameters of war, it would appear that we are in very deep trouble—climate change, after all, will never take on the lucid urgency of an approaching squadron of enemy bombers. It is no surprise then that the Biden administration can only frame the need for urgent climate action as an extension of its geopolitical competition with China. It isn’t simply that the latter is politically expedient; it’s that it is intuited as having greater reality than the slow-motion rise of ocean waters. Terrifyingly, it may be that the only way to sell climate action in the American context is by offering fig-leaves to China hawks in both parties.

The second conclusion reached by the report argued that “with existential risks learning from mistakes is not an option, [a situation in which] we cannot necessarily rely on [existing] institutions, moral norms, or social attitudes.”[29] Existential risks, especially global ones, require an entirely new set of political concepts, moral sensibilities, and organizational strategies. In certain instances, these experimental ideas will in fact be old ones drawn from the most improbable of places. For example, within the Marxist tradition, no such opposition exists between the logic of mobilization and a fear of the whole-scale negation of society; rather, the former exists as the ultimate expression of the powers of the latter. Mobilization within this context involves the transition of a society into a state of semi-transparency, the recognition that societies are not simply aggregates of parts, but interconnected totalities with hitherto untapped or obscured potentials. This means aiming the collective force and attention of society at one concrete goal, an act of concentration that is at the same time a radical intensification of everyday life and a production of new forms of organized human energy. Take, for example, Cuba’s 1961 drive to eliminate illiteracy. Or, the Chinese government’s own campaigns to eliminate opium addiction, gangsterism and prostitution in the wake of the revolution in 1949. If we are to innovate solutions to the problems facing us over the next century, we need to be more open to learning from political experiments that we’ve been trained to see as little more than failure or fantasy. Let me be very clear: this doesn’t mean adopting past models outright nor ignoring the very real failures of state socialism. Nor does it even mean rooting our politics in older conceptual coordinates. It simply means pointing to the ways in which these projects help us imagine politics away from a very deeply internalized set of liberal reflexes that today are critical barriers to substantive climate action. The examples given above involved scumbling the normal lines separating politics from culture, the people from the state, as well as the usual borders that separate families, homes, and individuals--the interiority of private life--from the rest of society. In moments of mobilization a kind of momentary social fusion sets in that is as ennobling and thrilling as it is uncomfortable and demanding. These are fraught moments, ones that can combine both liberating and oppressive elements: individuals caught in such a process are simultaneously “masters of history and replaceable parts.”[30]

The eyeball test of effective climate action is extremely simple: is there anything in front of me, in my home, on the street, or in my workplace or neighbourhood that even remotely suggests we have broken with capitalist business-as-usual? If nothing has become more difficult for us, if one is not encountering new limits, then you are living in a society that has yet to wake up to the problem of climate change. If you can’t feel it phenomenologically, there in the intimacy of your everydayness, you can be sure it doesn’t exist. For us to avoid climate catastrophe, mobilization will have to take place on a scale and in a manner that involves America effectively learning how to be a different domestic and international subject on the fly and doing so in the unpropitious winds of structural logics—those of both inter-state rivalry and capitalism itself—that badly incentivise status-quo thinking. Rather than sanctions, moral grandstanding, machista shows of force, increasing military budgets, and unending Psy-Ops, America must instead commit itself to forging a genuinely new kind of relationship to two traditional Others at the same time—the Big Other represented by nature within the Western imaginary since the seventeenth century and the smaller, more localized cultural Other represented by the ‘Orient’. As we look backwards on a summer (2021) of unignorable droughts and floods, the American government has decided to increase its military spending, to invest in long-range stealth bombers the only possible target of which is China, and to openly challenge long-established redlines on Taiwan. The likelihood that China will want to spend billions on a green transition that potentially undercuts its economic growth in the context of such aggression defies belief. Above all else we need to avoid a situation in which the key global players conclude that armed adaptation to climate change is the only realistic option. In other words, a situation in which all sides conclude that the battle against warming is over and that all that remains for everyone involved is bare Hobbesian survival.

In a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, Bernie Sanders wrote that after twenty years of “extolling the virtues of free trade and openness to China” the “establishment [has now began] to beat the drums for a new Cold War, casting China as an existential threat to the United States.”[31] Climate groups have begun to recognize the trend, openly pointing to America’s relationship to China as among the most urgent environmental questions of our time. In 2021, a coalition of climate groups—including 350 Action, Earth Friends—released a statement saying that “nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new Cold War between the United States and China.”[32] Rather than doubling down on a politics of endless antagonism the West has an opportunity to unlearn some of its worst habits and to cultivate “a new internationalism rooted in global cooperation, resource sharing and solidarity.”[33] Just as weaning men off patriarchy makes them happier, so too might the West’s rejection of xenophobic militarism mean opportunities for changed, and more joyful, relationships to nature, the rest of the world, and ourselves. These seemingly ‘abstract’ or ‘idealistic’ goals are now the very content of any serious Realpolitik because survival is no longer an exclusively national issue, but a planetary one operating on the level of the species itself. If America does not learn this, and pragmatically abandon zero-sum thinking, the likelihood of late century climate breakdown, and no doubt, World War 3, loom large. 


[1] Lenton, M. Timothy, Johan Rockstrom, Owen Gaffney, Stefan Rahmstorf, Katherine Richardson, Will Steffen, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. “Climate tipping points—too risky to bet against”. Nature. 27 November 2019.

[2] Hung, Ho-Fung. “The US-China Rivalry is About Capitalist Competition”. Jacobin. Nov 7, 2020.

[3] See Lee Harris, “Congress Proposes $500 million for Negative News Coverage of China”. The American Prospect. Feb 9, 2022.

[4] Shambaugh, David. China’s Future. John Wiley and Sons, 2016.

[5] Hung, Ho-Fung. “The US-China Rivalry is About Capitalist Competition”. Jacobin. Nov 7, 2020.

[6] Abrami, Regina, William C. Kirby, and F. Warren McFarlan. “Why China Can’t Innovate”. Harvard Business Review. March 2014.

[7] Dychtwald, Zak. “China’s New Innovation Advantage”. Harvard Business Review. May-June 2021.

[8] Li, Yifei and Judith Shapiro. China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020.

[9] Regan, Hegel and Carlotta Dotto. “US vs. China: How the world’s two biggest emitters stack up on climate”. CNN. Nov 3, 2021.

[10] Popovich, Nadja and Brad Plumer. “Who Has the Most Historical Responsibility for Climate Change?” The New York Times. Nov 12, 2021.

[11] Nosowitz, Dan. “China Makes 50% of Your Stuff. How Many Chinese Brands Can You Actually Name?” Popular Science. April 3, 2013.

[12] Elliot, Larry. “Cop26 will be derailed unless the rich world meets its obligations to the poor”. The Guardian. Nov 4, 2021.

[13] “The Stern Review was the report for the British government that laid out, proved, the case for doing something about climate change, probably the most important part of which is that we must use the cheapest method of doing said something. The logic is irrefutable: We humans do less of the more expensive things and more of the cheaper things. Therefore, if we use expensive methods of dealing with climate change, we'll actually do less climate change prevention. If we use cheaper methods, then we'll save the planet more, or save more of the planet. Thus follows the rationale for our producing some part of wind turbines, even if not the blades, in Beijing rather than in Pittsburgh. It's the same reason we have trade at all, to make ourselves richer by gaining access to those things that foreigners, even if they are Chinese, do better, cheaper, or faster than we do. Exactly because these Chinese products are cheaper we will achieve more climate change prevention by using imports”. From Tim Worstall, “Biden offers hot air on wind turbine imports”. Washington Examiner. May 10, 2021.

[14] Ibid.

[15] For more on this question see Karan Girotra and Serguei Netessine. “Why Apple Has to Manufacture in China”. Harvard Business Review. Oct 2, 2012.

[16] Paulson, Hank. Dealing With China. Headline Publishing Group, 2016.

[17] Albright, Madeleine K. “The Coming Democratic Revival”. Foreign Affairs. Nov/Dec 2021.

[18] Hsu, Angela. “How China is (and isn’t) fighting pollution and climate change”. TED 2018. April 2018.

[19] Finamore, Barbara. “Will China Save the Planet?” NRDC. Nov 18, 2018.

[20] Rainey, James. “More Americans believe in global warming—but they won’t pay much to fix it”. NBC News. Ja 24, 2019.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Yang, Jianxun, Dimitrios Gounaridis, Miaomiao Liu, Jun Bi, and Joshua P. Newell. “Perceptions of Climate Change in China: Evidence from Surveys of Residents in Six Cities”. Earth’s Future. Vol. 9, Issue. 12. Dec 2021.

[23] Ambrose, Jillian. “China leads world’s biggest increase in wind power capacity”. The Guardian. March 10, 2021.

[24] Baraniuk, Chris. “How China’s giant solar farms are transforming world energy”. BBC. Sept 4, 2018.

[25] Poon, Linda. “Why U.S. Cities Aren’t Using More Electric Buses”. Bloomberg. June 27, 2019.

[26] Albert, Eleanor. “China Tackles Its Plastic Problem”. The Diplomat. Jan 29, 2020.

[27] Weilin, Pan. “Dialectics of Waste: Recycling Campaigns in Socialist China, 1949-1978”. Talk given at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Nov 21, 2019.

[28] Spratt, David and Ian Dunlop. “Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach”. Breakthrough Online. May 2019.

[29] Ibid, 7.

[30] Pang, Laikwan. The Art of Cloning: Creative Production During China’s Cultural Revolution. London: Verso, 2017.

[31] Sanders, Bernie. “Washington’s Dangerous New Consensus on China”. Foreign Affairs, June 17, 2021.

[32] Quoted in Kenny Stancil, “45 + Groups Say ‘Future of Our Planet Depends on Ending New Cold War’ Between US and China”. Common Dreams. July 8, 2021.

[33] Ibid.

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