TCSS Security Commentaries #021

Whether China’s climate action programs have a more significant influence on Southeast Asian countries than US policies.

Thuong Nguyen, Taiwan Center for Security Studies

China may peak its emissions earlier in GDP per capita growth before slowing down to net-zero. In a dialogue with ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Professor Zou, President and CEO of Energy Foundation China, highlighted that the early peaking of emissions is technically and economically feasible and more cost-effective and beneficial for China’s modernization strategy.

Historically, while China, the EU, and India experienced an increase in CO2 emissions, the US and Germany saw a slight decrease. In 2017, China peaked at more than 10000 mm tonnes CO2, making a big gap with other countries. Meanwhile, the EU and India only emitted around 3800 and 2100 in respectively. The carbon emission of the US at that time constituted about 5000 mm tons, less than half that of China.

Over the past few decades, these countries experienced a sharp decline in emission per GDP. In 2017, the US only emitted 280m tonnes per GDP while China’s emission was 450, almost double the US, but was the highest emission among others.

Source: IEA, The Global Carbon Project: IEA, 2020a

National Targets for Energy and Carbon Emission

In the 14th five-year plan (FYP)1, covering the years 2021 to 2025, officially endorsed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) on 11 March 2021, China emphasized the general direction to a low-carbon transition. Furthermore, in order to accelerate the socio-economic transition toward modernization, the Chinese government pledged an enhanced ambition with a range of climate actions, such as “the energy mix, energy distribution, improving efficiency in resource utilization, greening of all sectors, enhancing a green legal and policy environment, promoting the circular economy, as well as participating in and leading international cooperation on the climate change agenda.”

China is expected to reduce energy intensity and carbon intensity to 13.5% and 18 %, respectively. At the same time, its total capacity of energy production needs to reach more than 4.6 bln tce. Notably, the Chinese government pledges to control the increase of coal usage or coal power during the 14th FYP and attempts to decrease steadily during the 15th FYP to touch on carbon neutrality by 2060.

Source: Energy Foundation China

All sectors and levers must contribute to China’s de-carbonation pathway:

Source: Energy Foundation China, Synthesis Report 2020 on China’s Carbon Neutrality

Source: Energy Foundation China, Carbon Neutrality Synthesis Report

In order to support the implementation of the renewables plan, China will expand programs aimed at changing the energy landscape by installing 1.6TW of wind and solar by 2030, centralizing renewables in the north and northwest to replace coal-based supply provinces, and distributing renewables enlarged in rural, urban land and off-shore regions.

How China Can Promote Climate Actions in Southeast Asia

Reaching new national climate goals will offer potential cooperation between China and the nations of Southeast Asia, both at the national planning level and at the sectoral level. Firstly, it supports China’s further integration with the world through partnerships with neighboring countries and sharing experiences and vision on national climate strategies and planning through multilateral forums. Secondly, it will support one of the most cost-effective policies and programs to mitigate global climate change, such as coordinating energy efficiency standards for the traded products and energy transformations. In addition, under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, we may see more potential links between national or regional carbon markets. Moreover, thirdly, as the largest trade partner of China, Southeast Asian countries might have more opportunities for cooperation in GHG emissions mitigation and air pollution reduction targets, renewable capacity development, and rural electricity access. By doing this, countries could prompt financing for green infrastructure development.

Even though these good signals can help other developing countries heighten their ambition, China must prevent carbon leakage, which may happen if a country reduces its domestic emissions while exporting emissions to other countries through trade and investment. Its response to this challenge will have significant implications for Southeast Asia. Currently, China is the largest overseas financier of coal, with Indonesia and Vietnam in its top three recipients of coal finance in the last two decades. The immense demand for coal in Southeast Asia drives these investments, with many ASEAN countries prioritizing cheap coal over renewables. However, because of the catastrophic climate projections highlighted in the recent IPCC report, these countries are expected to change their climate policies at the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) conference in November.

A Professor from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said China also plays a role in encouraging Southeast Asia to pursue green projects through measures such as adding provisions to its overseas green financing laws. In addition, China’s climate special envoy, Xie Zhenhua, has spoken on China’s new green agenda, which now excludes coal projects. However, China has just restarted a series of coal mines, causing concerns in the international community, then whether this country that accounts for a quarter of global emissions properly executes the Paris Agreement commitments.

While many future cooperations will be welcomed by China, there is intense pressure on the Southeast Asian countries to transform towards clean energy from the US. The potential implications of Biden’s administration approach to climate change for Southeast Asian nations “include pressure to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, restrictions on trade, and the tying of development assistance to climate objectives”, Paul G. Harris – the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong said.

The US’ current actions will not be enough to solve the climate crisis, due to the long delay under President Trump. Therefore, nations in Southeast Asia should prepare comprehensive climate projects for the worst-case impacts and scenarios, as predicted by scientists.

US climate policies and programs are inevitably adjusted to comply with the administration’s climate objectives. Hence, their counterparts in the Southeast will need to be sensitive to policy changes as and when they emerge. Accordingly, these countries are expected to do more to mitigate their GHG emissions. It will be especially crucial for those that depend too much on coal energy and those that export it (Indonesia and Vietnam).

At the same time, new regulations of land-use for climate change also become more important in US foreign policy, affecting nations with poor records on forest protection, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. If Biden’s policies take hold, ASEAN will face climate-related tariffs and trade restrictions. Last month, Democrats in the US Congress introduced legislation to do just that2. In addition to the pressure on carbon emissions mitigation, the US will support international assistance (bilateral and multilateral agencies) to make doing so easier.


  1. Issue Brief – China’s 14th 5-Year Plan: Spotlighting Climate & Environment | UNDP in China
  2. Naomi Jagoda and Zack Budryk, “Democrats seek to tackle climate change with import tax,” The Hill (18 July 2021),