As relations between the West and China continue to deteriorate, climate policy is one of the areas where cooperation is most clearly in everyone’s interest. For the EU it is crucial to devise a strategy for how we can uphold our values and principles while collaborating with authoritarian nations such as China on the green transition. This can only be done by leveraging our strengths in areas where China remains dependent on cooperation with the outside world. (1)

We get a sense of the scale of the challenge when looking at the downward spiral of the US-China relationship and its effect on climate cooperation. China insists that cooperation with the US on climate cannot simply be split from other policy issues, while the US in turn has stated that there can be no trade-off where cooperation in this area buys silence on issues such as human rights.

There is no doubt that the Chinese government is taking climate change seriously; President Xi Jinping has announced a timeline where China’s carbon emissions are to peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality is reached before 2060. As China and the West pursue the green technologies of the future, cooperation and positive competition will remain crucial. The EU must focus on how cooperation on climate can progress if ties with China continue to fray due to geopolitical rivalry. This will be even more urgent if a Republican wins the US elections in 2024 or 2028, in which case joint efforts in green technological innovation by China and the EU might become of existential importance for averting global climate breakdown.

Lack of strategic clarity

The EU has largely settled on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s idea of 'de-risking' the relationship with China: making ourselves less dependent on China for vital goods. However, there seems to be little consensus on what this entails. For example, on their visits to China in October 2022 and April 2023 respectively, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron signalled their intention to continue pursuing further economic entanglement and avoid confrontation with China.

Vlag van de Volksrepubliek China
Photo: Tomas Roggero, 2011. CC BY 2.0

Considering the EU’s lack of strategic clarity when it comes to the China challenge, it is quite likely European leaders will simply choose to avoid confrontation with China in order to secure cooperation on climate. And it is likely that Beijing will use climate as leverage in the future to punish and reward European behaviour in a divide and rule approach. In fact it is already doing so: in the wake of the visits by Scholz and Macron, and on his first high-profile trip to Europe in June 2023, the new Chinese Premier Li Qiang suggested that climate policy, aimed at integration of their green energy industry chains, should be central to ties between China and EU countries. Obviously, this contrasts with China’s refusal to engage with the US on the same issues.

Technology chokepoints as leverage

However, we cannot remain dependent just on Chinese goodwill when it comes to climate cooperation, as that will severely limit our room for manoeuvre in future relations with China. In order to put the EU’s climate policies on surer footing, what is needed is that we assess and strengthen our geopolitical and technological leverage over China, particularly in future technologies for which China remains dependent on the outside world.

Especially with the breakdown in US-China relations, the Chinese will continue to need access to numerous technologies developed in Europe. China’s Science and Technology Daily has identified 35 strategic technology 'chokepoints', where they will remain dependent on imports from the outside world for the foreseeable future. (2) These include technologies in robotics, high-end steel, new materials and chemistry that are crucial to China's industrial upgrading, even if not all of them are exclusively linked to the green transition. This should be recognised as leverage to remind China that collaboration is still in its best interest, especially on climate. Thereby we can to an extent isolate this interaction from the broader relationship, and resist China’s demands in other areas. Developing such a strategy will be all the more important for the EU due to our need to also benefit from Chinese advances in green technologies, especially with EU-US climate cooperation a constant uncertainty due to Republican climate denial.

All in on deterrence

This will require the integration of climate cooperation within a multipronged China strategy, that relies on joint efforts with likeminded partners to determine and enforce our red lines, for example when it comes to addressing the Uyghur genocide or deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan. The deferential attitude championed by Scholz and Macron has done the opposite: with German companies like Volkswagen still unapologetic about being active in Xinjiang, and Macron stating that Taiwan should not be a primary concern of Europe. The current strategy, or lack thereof, might yield Chinese cooperation on climate in the short term, but in the longer term will bring us closer to climate disaster. This is because neglecting deterrence and abandoning our red lines only makes Chinese external aggression more likely. This could in turn lead to an uncontrollable breakdown in ties between China and the West, with disastrous effects on the green ambitions of Europe, and possibly the world. For now we are still reliant on China in our green transition due to its control over access to rare earth metals, as well as its dominance in fields like electric vehicles and solar panels, and we might remain mutually dependent on cooperation when it comes to future green tech innovations.

The continued lack of a robust China strategy will lead to misunderstandings, and increases the likelihood of both climate breakdown and war. Firstly, the Chinese might underestimate the resolve among democratic nations to resist a violent change in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, much like Vladimir Putin underestimated western resolve in aiding Ukraine. Therefore we must go all in on deterrence and make clear we are willing to enforce our red lines, and that China will sacrifice future scientific cooperation by choosing war. Secondly, a miscalculation that could lead to Chinese aggression would be that they overestimate their ability to develop future technologies by themselves, with some in China already saying that isolation actually stimulates domestic innovation. Therefore we must stress the realities of mutual dependence in pursuing these technological innovations, as well as our willingness to apply this as leverage.

Central to 'de-risking' should be a robust and integrated EU strategy that strengthens our agency vis-à-vis China, serves to deter Chinese expansionism, and thereby safeguards cooperation in averting climate disaster.


  1. The author wants to thank Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau, of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), for his insightful comments on a draft version of this article.
  2. Ben Murphy, 'Chokepoints: China’s Self-Identified Strategic Technology Import Dependencies' (Center for Security and Emerging Technology, May 2022).
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