Can China and the US be allies on climate change?

As I say below, an interesting possibility. The more I think about it, the more plausible it seems. This column for National Journal (the link expires in a month) is about last week's US-China talks. It mainly discusses other aspects of economic diplomacy, and only touches on climate change at the end. I'll have to come back to it.

Americans are a proud people who do not care to be bossed around. So are the Chinese. Hence [so far as most points of contention are concerned], the greater the diplomatic pressure, the less the progress. Restraint and respect will likely be more conducive to good policy than attempts to muscle the other side -- and this runs both ways.

The important exception to this is climate change. In the cases I just discussed, the mutuality of interests is exaggerated. The key to sensible policy is for the national interest to guide it. Climate change is different. There, forgive the expression, we really do sink or swim together. Whatever Al Gore may say, U.S. action on carbon emissions is going to bring little benefit to the United States unless India and China act too. Cooperation on this between the two countries is going to be vital -- the difference between success and failure.

The good news is that the prospects for this necessary cooperation are better than you might suppose. In fact, the United States might find that in China it has an ally. China has been reluctant to commit itself to internationally agreed-upon targets for carbon reductions -- but so has the United States. And the reasoning on each side is not that different. Skepticism about the mechanics of agreements like the failed Kyoto accord is exacerbated by an elevated sensitivity to infringements of sovereignty. It seems to me, as a European, that China and the United States understand each other pretty well on that topic.

Together, the United States and China could conceivably push for an international emissions-control system that is more flexible than Kyoto, putting greater emphasis on investments in new clean technologies and less on punitive sanctions against existing industries. If they chose to get together on this, the game would be up for other approaches. It is, at least, an interesting possibility.