Since Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal, China has repeatedly vowed to uphold the accord and work with American states that share its determination.
Giving a warm welcome to California Governor Jerry Brown, an opposition Democrat and self-described “envoy for humanity”, while cold shouldering US Energy Secretary Rick Perry signalled Beijing was happy to bypass Washington to make that happen.
“I think the message is that irrespective of the decision of Donald Trump, China is willing to work with individual states and cities in the United States,” said Willy Lam, an expert on politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Brown and Perry arrived in Beijing for a ministerial-level clean energy meeting just days after Trump’s shock announcement.
While Perry maintained a relatively low profile during his visit, Brown, who had described Trump’s move as “insane”, went on a public relations offensive as he sought to fill the vacuum left by the US leader in the climate change fight.
“We are losing ground. We are not moving at the pace needed to prevent catastrophe,” Brown warned Thursday on the sidelines of the gathering.
Brown used several public appearances in Beijing to drum up Chinese support for California’s aggressive efforts to curb climate-warming carbon emissions, including face-to-face talks with Xi in the Great Hall of the People, a venue normally reserved for meetings with visiting heads of state.
His efforts yielded results.
By the end of a week-long tour Brown said he had secured several preliminary agreements relating to clean energy and the establishment of a China-California climate institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
China is a “major economic engine that is investing in the low-carbon economy and California is doing things that are similar, on a smaller level of course,” Brown told AFP.
Chinese officials have made it clear they want to work with the American state and beyond.
California has “a lot of experience that is beneficial to the rest of us”, Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate negotiator, told a forum attended by Brown on Thursday.
“We will not only continue to strengthen cooperation with California, but also strengthen concrete cooperation with other US states, cities, enterprises and scientific research institutions in fields including clean energy.”
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Trump’s backsliding on the Paris deal is viewed as handing China the mantle in the battle against global warming – an opportunity Beijing welcomes as it seeks to become a world leader on everything from globalisation to the environment.
But it also fits with China’s domestic political agenda of being seen to do more to clean up its polluted air and rivers and find new ways of spurring economic growth.
Perry called for Sino-US cooperation on clean energy, noting America was still keen to work with China despite Trump’s decision to exit the global climate agreement.
“We have extraordinary opportunities to be partners to work on clean energy issues,” said Perry, who was granted a reception with China’s number seven, Zhang Gaoli, in the central leadership compound.
While Perry’s meeting with Zhang could be interpreted as a diplomatic snub to the US official, analysts said it may also mean that China has not given up on Washington.
“It’s probably trying to send some signal that China is still trying to cooperate,” said Tom Rafferty, China regional manager for the Economist Intelligence Unit.