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If there’s one thing Joe Biden and Donald Trump agree on, it’s China. Four times already, Biden has broken America’s commitment to strategic ambiguity, saying the U.S. would defend Taiwan if attacked by China. Last December, Biden refused to remove crippling Trump-era tariffs on China. Biden’s last visit to the Middle East was similarly driven by a strategy of blocking Chinese influence, or an extension of Trump’s foreign policy.
While lawmakers stand divided on nearly every political issue, historian and American foreign policy writer Stephen Weirnerfinds an exception: American rivalry with China has unwavering “bipartisan support.” The strategy of Great Power Competition isn’t red or blue — it’s purple, representing a rare exception in America’s polarized politics. The idea that China presents an economic, military and ideological threat transcends beyond partisan lines, uniting progressives and conservatives.
Many pundits paint competition with China as “dangerous,” “hegemonic” and “zero-sum.” But they overlook the important domestic, trans-partisan policy cooperations and opportunities enabled by foreign competition. The reality is that Biden and politicians across ideological aisles have their ambitions set on rivalry with China. That’s not changing anytime soon. Lawmakers must now explore how this rivalry can be leveraged to push forward policy compromises at home.
The subtle yet most meaningful form of bipartisan competition — climate competition — is when the United States and China compete to reduce their carbon emissions and expand climate technologies faster than the other. This competitive pressure far outpaces the net effect of partnership.
For decades, America attempted to cooperate with China through international climate negotiations and treaties. These have proved weak, ineffective and incapable of producing significant progress. Since Beijing signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, it only fueled its coal addiction, adding 275 more gigawatts of coal — the dirtiest fossil fuel — to Chinese power grids. That’s larger than America’s total coal consumption. China also fell short of meeting shared bilateral climate targets with America. President Xi Jinping is rich on the “carbon neutrality by 2060,” and “net-zero” rhetoric but appears unwilling to fulfill his promises and agreed compromises. Professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute Andrew Erickson concludesthat climate cooperation, if any, is “doomed to fail.”
Climate competition is the better option to generate more meaningful change. Already, competition’s unifying forces proved successful, powering America’s major climate reforms. The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act was passed in March 2022 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Investing $600 million annually into solar panels and $8 billion into the UN Climate fund, the legislation marks a remarkable bipartisan achievement made possible by competition with China. Even with the Inflation Reduction Act, Ilaria Mazacco, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reveals that although it was a win for “U.S. climate advocates … much of the bill is aimed squarely at enhancing competition with China.” The Clean Competition Act, although newly introduced, similarly shows promise in amassing cross-party support and tackling climate change directly.
In all these massive decarbonization efforts, the driving political force was U.S. competition with China. Typically, amid today’s divisive political culture, any Republican would shut down these lofty climate investments. But owing to the Chinese competition element, Republicans are far more cooperative and amicable toward climate change policy. Great power competition functionally opens up an entire new avenue of climate solutions and policy possibilities.
Similar forces of great power competition push China to go green. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) core aim is to maintain a positive image and influence its people. China will do whatever is necessary to enhance its appearance and accelerate its green energy transition faster than America. As the United States increased investment in solar and renewable technologies in the past, China responded with even greater renewable investment. America and China have also entered a mutually reinforcing competition cycle of providing more clean energy loans to developing nations.
Competition can also take shape more forcefully. Currently, 71 percent of China’s electricity comes from coal. By assembling a joint coalition with Western allies, America can deploy carbon tariffs on China until it promises and proves to reduce its coal usage. This competition-oriented system could bend Chinese markets to adapt to a lower carbon footprint. In this model, China can’t get away with unfulfilled promises anymore — it would be held hostage to severe economic pressure until it reduces coal usage.
Resorting back to cooperation would be unwise. First, neither Xi Jinping nor Republicans would be willing to cooperate. But Xi also has a lousy track record with delivering climate promises. Ultimately, our global warming crisis can’t afford anything near as unreliable — instead, it demands the type of tangible results brought by competition.
As great power competition grows fiercer, Democrats should continue leveraging competition’s cross-party support to force meaningful climate action. Competitive pressures accelerate both the U.S. and China’s green energy transition at speeds never seen before. Only competition can bring China to an effective negotiating table. And only competition, not flimsy cooperation, has the capacity to heal our planet.
Ashwin Telang is a director at the Borgen Project and an ambassador for the Meta Peace Team. At the Borgen Project, he regularly writes about U.S.-Chinese competition and cooperation dynamics. As an ambassador for the Meta Peace Team, he operates in structurally disadvantaged areas. His core focus is aiding communities disproportionately and institutionally affected by climate change.