China emerges as the new world superpower

Chinese premier outmanoeuvred Obama at Copenhagen

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The Gazette, Tuesday, December 22, 2009

There were 192 countries and 120 heads of government in the room at Copenhagen, but in the end there were only two at the table, the United States and China. Welcome to the new world order.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been one superpower, the U.S. Now there are two, as became abundantly clear in the chaotic closing day of the climate- change conference.

At that, Barack Obama was snubbed by the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. And then the U.S. was snookered by the Chinese.

As the New York Times reported Sunday in a riveting piece from the back corridor of the conference: "Twice during the day, Mr. Wen sent an underling to represent him at the meetings with Mr. Obama. To make things worse, each time it was a lower level official."

The first time, Wen sent his deputy foreign minister to a meeting of major heads of government, including most G8 countries (though not, apparently, Canada). Later on, the Times reported, "after a constructive one-on-one" between Obama and Wen, the Chinese premier sent his climate-change negotiator to another heads-of-government meeting that included the U.S. president.

There's more. The White House set up an evening meeting with the presidents of South Africa and Brazil, as well as the Indian prime minister and the Chinese premier, and when senior staff arrived, as the Times recounted it, they "were startled to find the Chinese premier already meeting with the leaders of the other three countries" - without the president of the United States, the guy who called the meeting in the first place. According to the Times, Obama rushed to the meeting and called out from the doorway: "Mr. Premier are you ready to see me? Are you ready?"

You don't see that in the newspaper every day, about the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth going cap in hand to his own meeting. It wouldn't have happened on Ronald Reagan's watch. His dignity, let alone his sense of the American president's role on the world stage, wouldn't have permitted it.

And what did Obama, and the world, get at the end of the day, after two intensive and chaotic weeks of negotiations under the aegis of the UN?

Not a treaty, not a binding agreement, although they called it the Copenhagen Accord, but a "take note" document, full of blank pages where targets for emissions reductions should have been.

As Obama explained it at his news conference, each country can set its own targets by filling in the blanks. It's quite a concept, running the climate-change issue like an open bar. Obama wants a 17-per-cent reduction of emissions below 2005 levels by 2020. Canada is looking for 20 per cent below 2006 levels. The Europeans would like at least 25 per cent, and they were understandably annoyed to be left out of the G5 meeting that finally came up with a shred of a deal.

Obama said his three bottom lines were transparency or verification of reductions, the actual mitigation of emissions levels, and the financing of developing countries' regimes by the developed nations.

And here's where Obama got snookered. On the second-last day of the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would do its part in creating a $100-billion-a-year fund for the emerging nations by 2020. This, in addition to the $30 billion on the table to 2012. This was a huge concession by the U.S. to meet an exorbitant demand by the developing countries. Clinton said it was "a deal breaker," and that the U.S. insisted on verification in return.

At the final meeting with Obama and the three other leaders, Wen deftly turned the tables saying that China wouldn't be accepting any financial aid, and therefore the question of verification was moot, and its sovereignty untouched. Clinton's deal breaker got flipped into China's deal maker.

As for Canada's position, so closely aligned with the U.S., it is hard to know where we go from here. There is no doubt about the need for a level playing field in our integrated North American economy. Perhaps, Stephen Harper and Obama can negotiate a North America accord that can serve as a model, much as the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement served as a model for the World Trade Organization.

That will take leadership, on both sides of the border. As for the chaotic conclusion of Copenhagen, Harper's role there, and Canada's, were modest to say the least. Given the outcome, it might not be a bad thing to have Canada going along with the Open Bar Accord without having our fingerprints on it. At least Harper kept his powder dry.

There might be another opportunity for Harper to take a leadership role in filling in the blanks on emission-reduction targets. Next June, Canada will be hosting the G8 and the G20 in Muskoka and Toronto. It's a unique opportunity for Harper to get climate change back on track.

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