Right climate for India-China talks on climate change

The India-China border flashpoints in the Himalaya are hotspots in more ways than one. The latest clashes threaten to derail cooperation on climate change between two countries that have the world's biggest carbon footprints.

One of the casualties of the strain in relations between India and China will be the cooperation between the two of the world’s most populous countries on the climate crisis.

After the violent clash on Galwan Valley in Ladakh on 15 June that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead, the two countries have been taking tit-for-tat economic action against each other. The latest was India’s ban on 50 Chinese apps, including TikTok which had at least 125 million users in India.

After a brief period in the 1950s of ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ bilateral bonhomie under Mao Zedong and Jawaharlal Nehru, things have not been the same. There is economic competition and there have been major border confrontations since the 1962 Himalayan war.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, Sino-Indian relations had actually improved with the two leaders having met multiple times since Modi came to power in India in 2014.

Modi’s visit to Xian in 2015 saw a breakthrough in bilateral relations, with the signing of 24 agreements ranging from economic and infrastructure development and military co-operation. Among the agreements signed were the ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Co-operation in Ocean Sciences, Climate Change and Cryosphere’ and the ‘MoU on Co-operation in Earthquake Science and Engineering.

But even while the two sides seem to have taken measures to de-escalate tensions along their disputed border, a new cold war has set in over the Himalaya just a time when the mountain range is thawing because of the impact of climate change.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in its ‘Himalayan Assessment’ last year said that one-third of the ice on the Himalaya would be gone by 2050 and two-thirds by the end of the century if measures are not taken to cut global emissions.

Although the specific details of the Xian MoUs between India and China are not available, they were taken as positive signs in that both countries recognise the climate crisis to be a pressing challenge in the region in the coming years. It was also an indirect acknowledgement of the fact that the two countries together produce one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions – China 28% and India 7%.

But both countries also share common climate vulnerabilities such as depleting water resources, weather extremes resulting in floods and droughts, extreme heat stress, and rising sea levels. Ironically, the very mountainous border both are fighting over is also Asia’s water tower, and Himalayan glaciers are the source of major rivers in India, China, and the rest of Asia.

The China–India agreements on climate change were perhaps the strongest agreements and bilateral networks between the two countries and provide a salient case study on what the future of collaboration between China and India could look like.

In 2001, the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, much like its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. Both led to a vacuum in international climate governance. With help from the European Union, China and India negotiated through the BASIC Group (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) to come up with a joint climate agenda.

Before the Conference of Parties (COP15) negotiations in Copenhagen, China and India took early steps to develop more coordination within the group to come up with a common position that would serve their national interests. In 2009, the two countries met in Beijing to sign an agreement to coordinate their approach to climate negotiations.

In Copenhagen in 2009, the BASIC Group got a boost by being recognised as a negotiation group of emerging economies. Its members were hailed for salvaging the conference by brokering the Copenhagen Accord with the United States at the very last minute despite criticism of leading a non-transparent and exclusionary decision-making process.

However, tensions soon emerged within the BASIC group. While India was praised for the newfound role of a mediator, China was seen as a bully in climate negotiations by the international community. The two countries also differed their own positions on points like emissions reduction targets and peaking of emissions.

Things started going downhill after that. In 2014, President Xi signed a joint climate agreement with then President Obama which formalised the rift between India and China. As a response to China’s joint agreement with the US, Prime Minister Modi said: “India will not be arm-twisted into climate action going against its national interest just on account of other countries.”

Although China and India presently do not have any official alliance on climate, they continue to share large carbon emissions profiles, vulnerabilities to climate change, and the common interest for energy-resilience.

The energy sector in both countries is following similar trajectories. China is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, with India at number 3 behind the United States. China’s carbon emission from the energy sector is expected to decline after peaking in 2030, while India is taking action to curb coal consumption and the associated problem of air pollution. The two countries also have a shared interest in reducing their dependence on imported fossil fuels and to promote national energy security.

To do so, solar energy has emerged as a key interest in both countries. China is now the largest manufacturer of solar systems in the world. India has also pursued policies promoting initiatives like the International Solar Alliance, and to drive down the costs of solar power and increase its share in the energy grid.

China is India’s second-largest trading partner, and building an alliance to promote the diffusion of technology across both countries and to learn from each other brings a win-win situation for both countries. It remains to be seen how much impact the current bilateral tension will have on trade.

The 2019 meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi in Chennai, just before Xi flew to Nepal, had generated tangible results and was supposed to have opened a new chapter in bilateral relations. The informal meeting mechanism had also provided an opportunity to put territorial disputes aside to focus on bilateral relations given common challenges like climate change.

Despite the media war between the two countries over the current border clash, it is in the national interest of both countries to increase collaboration in trade, climate action, and other issues – especially as the world plunges into a recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It could be this realisation that prompted Modi’s downplaying of the crisis by suggesting that the “Chinese neither entered our territory nor has any post been taken over by them.”

Rastraraj Bhandari is pursuing a Masters in Economics and China Studies at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing. 

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