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China’s push for environmental leadership through soft power

According to Ali Haider Saleem, China aims to bolster its soft power through environmental initiatives and supporting developing countries by sharing its technological expertise and undertaking green investments.

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Soft power has become China’s favored policy tool in recent years. Beijing took full advantage of the previous US regime’s negligence towards global climate action by sharing its plans and intentions for a greener future. By doing so, China received plenty of admiration from across the world and from people from all walks of life.

On several international forums, President Xi Jinping underlined his government’s desire to tackle global challenges and urged the international community to work collectively.

China aims to bolster its soft power through environmental initiatives and supporting developing countries by sharing its technological expertise and undertaking green investments. China is the largest renewable energy producer in the world and is also sponsoring green energy projects in different parts of the world under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Read more: Can China keep it’s climate promises?

As the world’s largest manufacturer and most populated country, China has witnessed plenty of environmental degradation over the years. Some of the major issues faced by the country include air pollution, soil pollution, desertification, and loss of biodiversity.

Restoring Ecosystems, the theme of 2021 World Environment Day, is one of the key agendas of China’s climate action. The authorities have taken these challenges seriously and launched a number of initiatives with the aim of achieving green growth in the upcoming decades.

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Initiatives taken by China

Some of the major steps taken to improve ecosystems in the country include the development of thousands of nature reserves and strict curbs on industrial activity in vulnerable areas. In 2020, China unveiled a 15-year plan for ecosystem management and local governments in the country have also initiated biodiversity preservation strategies.

China has also been pushing for ecosystem restoration initiatives at the international level and is backing the efforts towards United Nations Environmental Programme’s Vision 2050: “Living in Harmony with Nature”.

Read more: Importance of ecosystems for social development

China has stepped up its cooperation with partner countries and international organizations to jointly overcome environmental challenges. It has achieved considerable success in improving its environment and many countries wish to benefit from China’s expertise.

Despite its strong commitment, China has to take some necessary steps to cement its environmental leadership role. First of all, China has to bring under control its high volume of environmental and biodiversity damaging imports such as palm oil and wildlife.

Secondly, China has to ensure that infrastructure development in other parts of the world does not compromise local ecosystems. Even in Pakistan, many CPEC related activities have come under harsh criticism for overlooking environmental considerations.

Read more: CPEC: An environmental disaster

China’s green growth initiatives must also be complemented by restricting the acquisition of minerals, timber, and other agricultural commodities from developing countries. These countries often lack environmental preservation tools and their ecosystems suffer long-lasting damages from such exports.

Countering China’s BRI

China’s economic rise has not gone well with many Western countries that are always looking to pinpoint flaws in Beijing’s approach. In recent years, the Belt and Road Initiative has come under severe scrutiny. The critics point towards lack of transparency, disregard of environmental impacts, and financing of fossil fuel projects.

For many developing countries, coal remains the most reliable and affordable source of energy. Strict regulations at home have pushed Chinese firms to undertake these projects in other parts of the world which offsets the impact of China’s green initiatives.

Read more: Coal Power: Can we have a carbon free world after the virus crisis?

Counting on these shortcomings, the US has backed a number of alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative while aggressively pushing countries to turn their back on Chinese investments. Recently, The United States and other G7 countries have drawn a plan to counter China’s infrastructure strategy with a greener alternative.

In 2019, the US pushed for ‘Blue Dot Network’ with the aim to “promote quality infrastructure investment that is open and inclusive, transparent, economically viable, financially, environmentally and socially sustainable, and compliant with international standards, laws, and regulations”.

These plans, however, are seemingly politically motivated and unlikely to rival BRI on-ground. It must also be noted that the G7 countries are facing relatively much difficult economic challenges and are downsizing their own development budgets. They are not in a position to push back the already flourishing BRI by merely declaring it environmentally unfriendly.

Read more: Belt & Road Initiative by China is threat for other than economic reasons

A winning strategy?

One of the keys to the advancement of BRI in different parts of the world has been China’s soft power strategy. China has been calling for win-win cooperation and has taken decisive steps to address the development challenges of BRI partnering countries.

China’s strategy has allowed it to engage with its partner countries over the long term which will open doors for executing sustainable projects in the future as well.

China realizes the importance of addressing environmental challenges in order to meet its development targets. Achieving sustained economic growth and helping partner countries to move towards sustainable development will be necessary to counter the narrative pushed by its rivals.

Read more: China releases documents its success story, Global Souths most reliable partner

The fight against COVID-19 has proven China’s global leadership credentials. Many countries, including Pakistan, benefitted from China’s support in such testing times. China also has the necessary means to lead climate action and environmental conservation efforts. Making its overseas investments more inclusive and transparent will further strengthen its position.

Ali Haider Saleem has worked with the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) and National Defense University (NDU). His research interests lie in sustainable development, regional integration, and security cooperation. He has studied public policy at Queen Mary University of London and economics at NUST, Islamabad. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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