The framework agreement, described at the COP 26 conference as an ‘unexpected development’, reached between China and the US to strengthen cooperation in three critical areas of climate change should, on the one hand, be a lesson to the naysayers and a victory for the practitioners of silent diplomacy on the other side. The presidents of China and Russia were criticized by the heads of a number of Western governments, including the US president, for opting out of the Glasgow summit. But the moment he launched his criticism, President Biden must have known that his envoy was engaged in quiet diplomacy with his Chinese counterpart with the aim of reaching some sort of agreement before the venue for the COP 26 conference finally closed its doors. So for all the noise and criticism of China, the announcement of the joint statement between China and the US was another sobering reminder not to be surprised by the unexpected.
This is not the first time that quiet, soft or preemptive diplomacy has successfully prevailed. History is full of examples around the world showing where this diplomatic practice has triumphed, especially when aligned with a country’s national and international interests. This was exactly the case with both China and the US. Both governments had publicly disclosed policies, domestic targets and commitments that, on the face of it, reflected their respective nationally determined contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Both China and the US have long recognized that the urgency to tackle climate change requires international cooperation in general and US-China bilateral cooperation in particular.
Moreover, as the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, they further acknowledged that the consequences of non-cooperation are not limited to their respective jurisdictions, but to the world at large, and that they alone would not be able to provide a satisfactory global solution if they fail to accelerate the transition to a global net zero economy. Consequently, despite the tense relations between the two countries, China maintained an open-door policy for negotiations with the US on climate change. Both countries recognized the need to balance their competing domestic and international interests while participating in ‘back channel’ negotiations that led to the success achieved. Under the circumstances, diplomacy has, quietly or not, in the context of COP26, once again demonstrated its effectiveness and strength as a communication process between political entities.
Clement J. Rohee
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs