Chinese President Xi Jinping made a “big mistake” and damaged Beijing’s international standing by not showing up to the COP26 climate summit, US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday, as he sought to position Washington as a renewed leader of global climate action.
“I think it’s been a big mistake, quite frankly … with respect to China not showing up,” Biden said in Glasgow after days of meetings with other world leaders at the high-stakes climate conference.
“The rest of the world is going to look to China and say, ‘what value-added are they providing?’” Biden told reporters. “They’ve lost an ability to influence people around the world and all the people here at COP.”
Xi, who has not left China since the outbreak of Covid-19, provided a brief statement to the COP26 conference on Monday instead of attending in person or pre-recording a video address. His written remarks called for an acceleration of global climate action, but offered no new specific measures or commitments by his government.
“The single most important thing that’s got the attention of the world is climate,” said Biden. “It just is a gigantic issue and they’ve walked away. How do you do that and claim to be able to have any leadership now?”
Biden contrasted Xi’s absence with his own participation in the COP26 summit, coming after the US withdrew from Paris Agreement on climate change during the administration of former US president Donald Trump. Biden rejoined the pact in January.
“By showing up we’ve had a profound impact on the way I think the rest of the world is looking at the United States and its leadership role,” Biden said.
On Monday, the White House outlined a plan to ramp up climate financing to developing countries, and laid out a detailed road map for how the US would achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. And on Tuesday, the administration released a plan to reduce US emissions of methane, one of the most destructive greenhouse gases.
Yet Biden’s ambitious climate plan remains largely subject to approval in Congress, where even his own party is not in complete support. As he repeatedly touted his US$555 billion climate plan in Glasgow, Biden was dealt a blow on Monday as Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, refused to endorse the bill.
While Biden slammed Xi for not taking part in the summit, British prime minister and COP26 host Boris Johnson offered another interpretation on Tuesday, arguing that Xi’s absence did not mean that Beijing was “not engaging” and said the delegation China had sent was “very high level”.
One member of that delegation, chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua, expressed optimism on Tuesday that countries would be able to strike an agreement in Glasgow about global carbon markets, even as US-China tensions loom.
One of the as-yet unrealised components of the Paris Agreement, a global carbon market would allow a nation to fund emissions reductions in other countries – for instance by planting trees or building renewable energy infrastructure – and then count those reductions towards its own climate goals.
Addressing reporters, Xie said hard-fought US-China cooperation had led to the Paris Agreement, and that it was now time to “work harder and catch up” following the “wasted” years of the Trump administration.
Xie’s comments came despite repeated warnings by Chinese government officials that Washington should not expect Beijing’s cooperation on global issues like climate change while bilateral relations remain fraught in other areas.
Biden has maintained many of the China-related measures put in place by his predecessor, including an official determination that Beijing is carrying out “genocide” in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, charges that China denies.
Despite taking China to task over its climate commitments, Biden on Tuesday reiterated that his administration was not looking for conflict with Beijing, and wanted only to ensure that the Chinese government played “by the rules of the road.”
The US sought competition with China, said Biden, but also hoped to work with the country on “cybersecurity and a whole range of other issues”.
Biden and Xi are expected to hold a virtual bilateral meeting before the end of the year.
“The only conflict worse than one that’s intended is one that’s unintended,” Biden said. “I want to make sure there’s no misunderstanding: It’s competition, not conflict.”