Competition and coexistence
25 Oct 2021|

These are demanding times. Geopolitical tensions are rising, primarily—but not exclusively—between China and the United States. Yet, at the same time, there is a deep need for inclusive global cooperation to fight the pandemic and meet the threat of climate change. How the leading powers manage these competing demands will set the course of global development in the years and decades ahead.

Over the past few weeks, the US and China have attempted to establish some guardrails to prevent rising tensions from spiralling out of control. Following a recent meeting in Switzerland with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke about the need for ‘responsible competition’ between the two countries—a choice of words we haven’t heard before.

But as welcome as this rhetoric is, the reality is that the US and China are still locked in a deepening rivalry. The decision by the US and UK to supply Australia with nuclear submarines—the delivery of which will not come for many years—was intentionally framed to seem like a major strategic move to counter Chinese maritime expansion. Similarly, at a two-day meeting in Pittsburgh last month, EU and US officials outlined an agenda for new talks on trade and technology, placing special emphasis on the need for defensive measures against China. In Washington, speculation about a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan is running rampant and driving numerous decisions.

An increasingly authoritarian and assertive China isn’t the only geopolitical concern. Russia, too, poses a revisionist threat, with President Vladimir Putin issuing pronouncements that openly challenge Ukrainian sovereignty and cast doubt on the utility of diplomacy in handling the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region or issues stemming from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Just as many in the US see a drift towards war with China over Taiwan, many in Europe worry about a similar escalation with Russia over Ukraine.

But the need for cooperation to meet even larger challenges should be obvious. When world leaders gather in Rome later this month for the G20 summit, they will have to confront the fact that we have made it only halfway (at best) in our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

At a recent summit hosted by US President Joe Biden, representatives from more than 100 governments, international institutions, businesses and civil society organisations committed to vaccinating ‘70% of the population in every country and income category’ by next September. That target is still a long way off. At the moment, approximately 38% of the global population has been fully vaccinated, and there is a glaring and dangerous inequity between high- and low-income countries. Indeed, high-income countries have administered 32 times as many doses per inhabitant as low-income countries.

The truism that no one is safe until everyone is safe is as relevant as ever. There’s no guarantee that the Delta variant will be the last mutation to trigger new epidemic waves. It is humanity versus the virus. We urgently need to mobilise additional resources to distribute not only vaccines but also tests and treatments. In this context, China’s potential contributions cannot be ignored. It produces more vaccines than any other country, and it will play a key role in any new global structures that are created to prevent or fight future outbreaks (any one of which could be far more dangerous than Covid-19).

Likewise, when global leaders meet for the UN climate change summit (COP26) in Glasgow next month, they will have to make up for lost time. A recent report from the International Energy Agency paints an alarming picture of how much work there is to be done to decarbonise the economy. This year, we will see the second-highest increase in carbon-dioxide emissions in history, indicating no progress towards a 2050 net-zero emissions target. Worse, governments’ current pledges cover less than 20% of the reductions needed by 2030 to keep global warming within 1.5°C of the average pre-industrial temperature.

Everyone must do more, but few single actors are as important as China. If it doesn’t reduce its enormous dependence on coal, global targets will remain out of reach. China’s recent announcement that it will end its overseas financing of coal projects is potentially very significant: that alone could reduce emissions by as much as the EU reaching net zero by 2050. But even then, China and everyone else will have more to do.

As with the pandemic, climate change puts all of humanity on the same side against a threat that could all too easily spiral out of control. To be sure, today’s geopolitical tensions are real, and issues like Taiwan and Ukraine must not be neglected. Democracies have every reason to stand together against revisionist aggression. But the pandemic and climate change are problems that can be addressed effectively only if everyone is committed to working together. Achieving that outcome will require true global statesmanship, and progress towards it must be the standard against which diplomacy is judged.