China on the Defensive After Obama's Climate Speech

The Chinese premier reportedly walked away from negotiations with President Obama.


COPENHAGEN—As international climate talks drag into the night, the United States is publicly and privately pressuring China to share more information about its carbon emissions. And that is putting China on the defensive.

Both President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao addressed world leaders this morning, in what was supposed to be the final days of talks. But they struck sharply different tones in their speeches, and it now appears that Wen was offended by Obama's words.

Obama met with Wen this afternoon and, according to reports, sought a second meeting this evening after the premier walked away from negotiations.

The immediate source of conflict appears to have been part of Obama's speech. Speaking deliberately, with long pauses, Obama told leaders to stop squabbling over a deal or risk having "the same stale arguments, month after month, year after year, perhaps decade after decade."

He seemed annoyed, even accusatory, at times, admonishing some leaders for naively insisting on getting a perfect treaty and refusing to compromise. "We know the fault lines because we've been imprisoned by them for years," he said. "We have very little to show for it."

And in what was probably the most inflammatory part, at least from China's view, Obama said, "I don't know how you have an international agreement where we are all not sharing information . . . . That doesn't make sense. It would be a hollow victory."

Even before Obama spoke, Wen appeared defensive, as if compelled to address the charge that China is impeding an agreement. For several minutes he ticked off China's progress on green energy. From 2005 to 2008, he said, "China has enjoyed the fastest growth of renewable energy" in the world. China, he added, now ranks first in the world in terms of installed hydropower and nuclear plants under construction.

Wen reminded leaders there is general acceptance that China, as a developing country, should not be held to the same emissions standards as the developed world. "China has a 1.3 billion population," he said. "According to U.N. standards, we still have 150 million people living below the poverty line. We therefore face the arduous task of developing the economy and improving people's lives."

In general, the United States agrees with that assessment. But Obama said China must beef up its emissions monitoring and reporting, calling it a necessary step for a credible accord on greenhouse gas emissions. (Obama's call also has a political dimension, because Senate Democrats say they will struggle to pass a climate bill without verifiable assurances that China is serious about curbing emissions.)

Attempting to dispel China's concerns that the United States wants inspectors poking around Chinese factories, Obama said, "These measures need not be intrusive or infringe upon sovereignty." That did not allay Wen's frustration.

In part for that reason, the negotiations this afternoon have been volatile, with little progress, and now there is near certainty that they will continue through tomorrow. According to some reports, Obama and other leaders have been asked to stay the night.

But the United States has been trying to win this battle in a different way as well, by wooing Brazil and India, two other major developing countries. In recent days, U.S. officials in Copenhagen have met with leaders of both countries. According to one nongovernmental observer, who asked not to be named, the United States is trying to isolate China by persuading India and Brazil to support its position.

The Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, seemed to go for middle ground this morning. "They have a right to demand transparency," he said, referring to the United States. "But it is also true that we need to be very careful with this intrusion . . . and intervention in the developing countries and the less developed countries."

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