Boris’ success at COP26 will be measured by China’s seat at the table

Boris Johnson has made clear his government is pursuing a “balanced” approach with China. Britain will seek to impose stronger safeguards to protect our national security, while maintaining cooperation in a range of areas. Climate change is one of the most prominent issues. China is the world’s largest emitter and as a result, requires focused attention.

As the host of the Cop26 Summit the Government is aware of the weight on its shoulders in not only recalibrating the Western alliance after the turbulent Trump era, but moving things forward in a meaningful way from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement forged in rather different times. By some measures of modern geopolitics, whether or not Britain can convince China to attend the summit will be the test of its success as the host nation.

The past few years since leaders last met in Paris have seen a fundamental shift in both public attitudes and political responsiveness on climate action in major advanced democracies. In the UK, the unusual degree of consistency in messaging around climate action over the past decade has outlasted the dizzying shifts in the Conservative Party leadership. This has built a strong foundation of support for international leadership that few of our peers can match. It is therefore both practically and politically fortuitous that the UK secured the presidencies of both the G7 and Cop26 this year, but it also means the Government will be firmly in the spotlight as its “Global Britain” ambitions are put to the test.

How to engage with China is one of the trickiest aspects of managing the fragile geopolitical tensions of the Cop26 summit, especially as Britain goes through a fundamental “reset” of its relationship with the regime in Beijing. Over the past 18 months, the UK has begun to put new legislation and security measures in place to protect itself against vulnerabilities and to more loudly and consistently challenge China on its human rights record. There is significant pressure to maintain a constructive dialogue with China in order to secure the cooperation on a number of issues – including climate change – while the practical realities of such a balance approach make themselves starkly clear. Beijing’s increasing tolerance for risk and its decision to level sanctions on a number of British parliamentarians have risen the stakes.

The President of Cop26, Alok Sharma, has devoted significant resources to secure China’s place at the table for the summer and visited Beijing. China’s leadership knows it has considerable leverage on climate action. This is one of the few areas where democratic nations continue to try and cooperate with Beijing. An interest in keeping that advantage may indeed have contributed to the lukewarm commitments offered earlier this year by Xi Jinping, with China dragging its feet against an increasingly urgent timetable and refusing to be drawn into a Western-led global target.

At the same time, China is keen to recast its global image after a bruising few years in which its international soft power came under significant pressure. There are many aspects of the liberal world order which work in its favour, and while China finds little to envy in advanced democracies, it is keen to grow into a more prominent geopolitical role to befit its economic might. So for China, attending Cop26 is not without its appeal.

If Britain only lobbies Beijing on the basis of the moral argument for tackling climate change, it will fall on deaf ears. It is only with an emphasis on strategic gain for China that Sharma might be able to draw President Xi into the room. There is a productive pathway to be charted through highlighting the mutual interest between the United Kingdom and China in the innovation required to transform our economies. The longer-term competitive advantages in leading from the front of the transition are far more likely to pique Beijing’s interest than appealing to collective moral responsibility.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to the “Global Britain” agenda has already faced many tests. Pulling off a successful summit in Glasgow presents one of the biggest challenges for British foreign policy in modern times. We have no choice but to walk a tightrope, and trust that our ambitions live up to our capabilities.