Sino-Japanese Review

Sino-Japanese Environmental Cooperation or Competition?

Welcome to installment XXXV (November 2021) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on the major developments in relations between China and Japan. It provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps put current events in perspective.

Asia is seen to hold the key to preventing runaway climate change. Japan and China, as the two largest economies on the continent responsible for a significant share of global CO2 emissions and coal consumption, will undoubtedly play a significant role in the fight against climate change. Enhancing cooperation on green technologies between the two countries would help them meet their environmental targets.  Although there have been some efforts in the field of environmental cooperation, they have been increasingly overshadowed by more competitive dynamics.

Unfortunately, neither China nor Japan made bold pledges at the recent UN Climate Change Summit (COP26) in Glasgow. China and India were accused of curtailing progress at the summit by changing the language on coal use reduction in the summit’s outcome document. Japan also attracted criticism for its lackluster efforts to reduce its dependence on coal and for refusing to join a group of countries and organizations who pledged to phase coal out completely.

The one area of progress has been overseas coal financing, which both Japan and China have promised to stop this year. This may open new opportunities for bilateral cooperation since overseas infrastructure building was identified as a key area of collaboration during former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to China in 2018. The third forum on “Sino-Japanese cooperation in third country markets”, held this summer in Wuhan, did in fact focus on “low carbon and carbon neutral” projects.

Other bilateral environment-focused mechanisms have existed for some time. The first dialogue took place back in 1994. Environmental cooperation was briefly suspended following the 2012 crisis surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute but then revived in the form of a regular “high level roundtable”, the last of which was held in late 2019 shortly before the beginning of the pandemic. One important goal of these dialogues was initially to facilitate technology transfers from Japan and support China’s efforts to control air pollution, which at times reaches Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. This bargain may be less relevant today, but both countries are still interested in technology cooperation aiming to bring about an “eco-friendly society”.

If environmental cooperation has remained a positive aspect of the bilateral relationship, it is however not one that the two sides have devoted much attention to at a leaders level

If environmental cooperation has remained a positive aspect of the bilateral relationship, it is however not one that the two sides have devoted much attention to at a leaders level. It has remained the responsibility of environmental and trade agencies and has been geared toward involving private businesses and research institutions rather than toward the negotiation of binding shared commitments to climate action.

China and Japan are now in fact more likely to push each other toward more environmental ambitions through competition rather than cooperation. Commitment to climate action has become an important source of prestige on the international stage, a domain in which Tokyo in particular is reluctant to see Beijing claim an advantage. After President Xi Jinping announced last year that China would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060, then-Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide quickly followed suit with a target of net zero carbon by 2050 for Japan. South Korea was not far behind, demonstrating the importance of status considerations in Northeast Asian international politics. Few would complain if this struggle for status pushes the region to tackle the climate crisis with greater vigor.

Japan and China are also competing in the development of green technologies. This will undoubtedly spur innovation and greater investments which will facilitate a transition to a low carbon economy. Yet the fact that competition rather than dialogue and joint projects is taking center stage in Sino-Japanese environmental politics is a revealing sign of the current dynamics of the relationship. The two sides remain willing to preserve avenues for cooperation, but they see each other as rivals first.

Japan is eager to collaborate with the United States and other Western partners in the field of technology and business, and views China as a risk rather than an opportunity. This will be seen in Beijing as further proof that Tokyo is firmly on the other side of the widening divide between China and the West. It appears environmental issues cannot escape the pull of geopolitical tensions.

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Andrea A. Fischetti is a government scholar conducting research on Asia-Pacific Affairs and East Asian Security at the University of Tokyo and at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, and a research assistant at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Mr. Fischetti earned his MA in War Studies from King’s College London, following a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies.

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Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international affairs. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and a MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has previously worked at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and has been a visiting student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

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