The Truth Behind Hillary’s “China Hunt” at Copenhagen

When we met in Copenhagen in 2009 and, literally, President Obama and I were hunting for the Chinese, going throughout this huge convention center, because we knew we had to get them to agree to something. Because there will be no effective efforts against climate change unless China and India join with the rest of the world.

— Hillary Clinton at the Democratic debate 10/13/15

Clinton’s debate assertion matches her version of events in Hard Choices, confirming, I suppose, that she provided the talking points to her ghostwriter and then took the trouble to memorize them.

They are, unfortunately, pretty far shy of the truth.

Courtesy of India’s First Post, an excerpt from Hard Choices:

“President Obama and I were looking for Premier Wen Jiabao in the middle of a large international conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark,” she recalls. “We knew that the only way to achieve a meaningful agreement on climate change was for leaders of the nations emitting the most greenhouse gases to sit down together and hammer out a compromise, especially the US and China,” she said.

“But the Chinese were avoiding us.” “Worse, we learned that Wen had called a ‘secret’ meeting with the Indians, Brazilians, and South Africans to stop, or at least dilute, the kind of agreement the United States was seeking. When we couldn’t find any of the leaders of those countries, we knew something was amiss and sent out members of our team to canvass the conference center,” she writes. “Eventually they discovered the meeting’s location. After exchanging looks of ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ the President and I set off through the long hallways of the sprawling Nordic convention center…

“In a makeshift conference room whose glass walls had been covered by drapes for privacy against prying eyes, we found Wen wedged around a long table with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and South African President Jacob Zuma. Jaws dropped when they saw us. ‘Are you ready?’ said President Obama, flashing a big grin,” Clinton claims.

“Now the real negotiations could begin. It was a moment that was at least a year in the making,” she adds.

Horsepucky as far as the “we broke up China’s cabal and got the real negotiations going” thing. The cabal held firm, the loyalty of the West’s not-yet-bought-and-paid-for proxies among the smaller nations cracked, US objectives were not met, and the whole episode was a mega-fracaso.

I wrote a detailed backgrounder on Copenhagen soon after the debacle.  Here are some choice excerpts concerning the United States’ failure to “thwart”, indeed its inadvertent success in creating, the “BASIC” bloc (Brazil, South Africa with initials inverted for maximum acronym effect, India, and China) of affronted developing regional powers:

[T]he United States assiduously ignored the embarrassing fact of ostensible ally India’s move into the BASIC camp—and skated over the issue of how Washington’s conference planning found it lined up against both New Delhi and Beijing instead of playing one off against the other.

When one considers that the essence of U.S. diplomacy in Asia involves pushing China and India into opposition, forcing these two rivals into an alliance is a remarkable if dubious achievement.

India, for its part, was frank about its identity of interests with China, at least on the issue of climate change India has come out quite well in Copenhagen: Ramesh (Lead):

[Environment Minister] Ramesh said: “A notable feature of this conference is the manner in which the BASIC group of countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) coordinated their position.

“BASIC ministers met virtually on an hourly basis right through the conference; India and China worked very very closely together.”

“India, South Africa, Brazil, China and other developing countries were entirely successful in ensuring there was no violation of the BAP [Bali Action Plan] (of 2007),” Ramesh said.

“Despite relentless attempts made by developed countries, the conference succeeded in continuing negotiations under the Kyoto Protocol for the post-2012 period”, when the current period of the protocol runs out.

The original piece, long and filled with circumstantial detail, is still up at Japan Focus.

Another piece of dubious reportage from Hard Choices is Clinton’s rather counterintuitive explanation that outrage within the Chinese delegation was triggered by fear of the mad US negotiation skillz, rather than anger that the US team had forced its way into a private meeting between Wen and three other world leaders as if it was schooling misbehaving adolescents at a sleepover:

In one surprising display, one of the other members of the Chinese delegation …started loudly scolding the far more senior Premier.  He was quite agitated by the prospect that a deal might be at hand.

The Washington Post provided the context at the time:

China’s top climate change negotiator exploded in rage at U.S. pressure after Obama walked in on the Chinese while they were holding talks with the Indians, South Africans and Brazilians. After Obama asked whether the Chinese could commit to listing their climate targets in an international registry, Xie Zhenhua launched into a tirade, pointing his finger at the U.S. president… Wen instructed his Chinese interpreter not to translate Xie’s fiery remarks.

Apparently the fact that the US stunt—which, I note, Clinton is careful not to take responsibility for–caused Xie Zhenhua to berate President Obama, not Wen Jiabao, is one of those awkward items of narrative that demanded some creative bending and stretching.

Beyond placing the lumpy gristle of Copenhagen failure into the political memoir Cuisinart in order to output creamy Clintonian achievement, the book says very little about the objective that has been driving international climate change policy under President Obama: the desire to “kill Kyoto” i.e. collapse the current treaty and its messy framework of unbalanced obligations, big-and-small consensus, and rhetoric of moral claims on the developed world, with something more U.S.-friendly.

What really happened at Copenhagen was that President Obama had been unable to get national cap-and-trade legislation passed in the US.  Having never ratified Kyoto (with its binding emissions caps) and with no meaningful prospect of national legislation, the United States was unable to put any pressure on the People’s Republic of China to implement national caps and assist the world in moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol (which bound only the Annex 1 “advanced economies”) to a new regime in which all of the largest emitters (including China, India, Brazil, & South Africa) accepted binding caps.

Instead, President Obama and Secretary Clinton apparently came to Copenhagen with the idea that, absent meaningful US advances either on ratifying Kyoto or creating a new regime, the US would settle for half a loaf: incrementally weakening the Kyoto Protocol at Copenhagen so that it could be allowed to expire and the new regime, nonbinding and with the US and other major powers calling the shots (embodied in the “Denmark draft”) would emerge from its ashes.

In tactical terms, this meant attacking the PRC instead of working with it, by dangling the promise of mitigation money linked to transparency concessions to break the united front of China and the G-77 bloc of small countries.

In PR terms it meant that the virtually foreordained failure of the conference would be laid at China’s feet, something that the PRC was not quite prepared for, and which probably accounted for Xie’s furious but untranslated set-to with President Obama.

During the “President Obama walks on water” period, and a concerted media campaign to package the failure at Copenhagen as Chinese sabotage instead of US duplicity, it was very difficult to get this story out.  Before Japan Focus kindly agreed to wander off-topic and post my piece, I had been unable to place it elsewhere.

But over the next two years it became clear to environmentalists that what had really happened at Copenhagen was not a “r*atfucking” by the PRC, as Kevin Rudd put it, but the first stage of a persistent US campaign to gut the Kyoto Treaty.

Now it looks like awareness is seeping into the mainstream.

But I have a feeling that the takeaway from the debate will not be “Hillary Clinton delivered a load of hypocritical BS about climate change” but “Hillary Clinton hunts Chinese!”

And I expect she’ll be quite satisfied.

More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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