A China-US Smackdown at Copenhagen?

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Much of the conversation at the Copenhagen climate summit this week has focused on the two big gorillas of climate change: the United States and China. As I’ve noted, each country has been pressing the other to do more than they’ve been willing to do to address climate change, and each has been angling to be in a position to blame the other in case the talks fail. And on Friday, it got a little personal.

Two days earlier, US climate envoy Todd Stern, referring to the development of an international fund to help poor countries cope with climate change, said at a press conference, “I don’t envision public funds—certainly not from the United States—going to China.” Stern also dismissed the effort of some developing nations to push the United States to join the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set specific emissions reductions for industrialized nations—but not for major developing nations, such as China and India.

So when Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei held a press conference this afternoon, I asked for his response to Stern’s remarks. He went ballistic—in diplomatic terms. He said of Stern, “I don’t want to say that the gentleman is ignorant,” but he added that Stern “lacks common sense” or is “extremely irresponsible.” He noted that industrialized nations have a legal obligation to provide climate change funding to developing nations. But he did not say whether China, a major economic power, expects to receive any of this money for its own efforts. Pressed by another reporter, He remarked that small island nations should be the priority for such assistance. But he was dodgy on the issue of China receiving assistance: “It doesn’t mean China is asking for money.” He also said that the $10 billion proposed by the United States for the next three years is not nearly enough. He suggested that developed countries should devote 0.5 to 1 percent of their GDP to this program. “I doubt the sincerity of developed countries in their commitment,” he added.

After the press conference, I asked He if China would just come out and say that it didn’t expect to get any money from the United States for climate change programs—especially given that China’s position is that other developing nations are in greater need. And I added, a Chinese statement of that sort would help President Barack Obama at home, as he tries to sell both any agreement reached at Copenhagen and the pending climate change legislation in the Senate. He said China could not make such a declaration. “Funds should go from the developed nations to developing nations,” he said. He smiled and continued: “I cannot renounce that principle.” In other words, China is holding on to this bargaining chip.

With other reporters clamoring for He to expand or explain his comment about Stern, the Chinese official paused as he left the briefing room and said, “Mr. Stern is a friend of mine. What he said about the Kyoto Protocol and China not getting any funding from the United States is shocking. It goes against the principles we are talking about.” And he would say no more. Surrounded by Chinese officials, he walked off, looking like a diplomat who believed he had just landed a blow.

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