China and the United States are by far both the two largest global economies and the two largest greenhouse gas polluters. The future of the China and the United States’ relationship is much more than traditional big power rivalry over global wealth and influence.

The global ecological future and the ability to avoid global ecological catastrophe is largely dependent upon competitive cooperation between the two superpowers in the 21st and 22nd century. The US leads with nominal GDP at $22.7 trillion dollars in 2021, China with $16.7 trillion dollars, Japan with $5.8 trillion dollars, Germany with $4.3 trillion dollars and India with $3.1 trillion dollars.

The United States and China may be rivals. But their mutual interest, now and in the future, rests on channeling their competitive energies into global transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy and vastly expanding sustainable global markets. A stellar example of competitive cooperation are the announcements by both China and the United States of massive provision of covid vaccines for the global poor.

The United States has pledged, as of 6th December 2021, to donate 1.1 billion doses of covid-19 vaccine before 2023. In late November, China’s President Xi pledged another 1 billion covid-19 vaccine doses for Africa. There is a donation of 600 billion doses with 400 billion produced by a joint China-African venture. Xi also pledged to build 10 health projects in Africa staffed by 1,500 health experts, set up a credit line for African financial institutions of $10 billion dollars to support African exports, create a trade zone for economic cooperation and build a China-Africa industrial park.

Of course, China investments globally on the Belt and Road initiative and in Africa have been criticized by some as unfair and as a neocolonialist debt trap or a sop to kleptocratic local elites. A similar case has been made in regard to US aid, loans and investment and so-called ‘structural adjustment’ imposed on poor nations by the US and World Bank to pay unsupportable debt load, forced to pursue commodity exports, privatization, and cuts in social services. The point is that China is emerging as an effective global competitor to the United States in the exercise of soft power, the sharing of information and technology, aid and investment.

The ecological imperative

China, with its emergence as a global factory, is currently the leading greenhouse gas polluter. But the United States historically has emitted more and profited more (by far) from burning fossil fuels. Since 1850, the US has emitted almost twice as much carbon dioxide equivalents as China. China emitted 14.1 billion metric tons in 2019, more than a quarter of the world's total emissions. The US emitted 5.7 billion tons, 11% of total emissions; next is India with 6.6% and the European Union with 6.4%.

It is also important to note that as a global factory, the US and the EU exported much of their greenhouse gas pollution to China to use its coal fired power plants to produce the lower cost goods imported from China for American and European consumers, and profit by US corporations from Amazon to Walmart to Apple and beyond.

China is also the world leader in production of wind machines, solar panels, solar hot water systems, electric vehicles, lithium batteries as well as massive reforestation efforts. China just announced, after COP26, a new massive reforestation effort, to replant an area the size of Belgium each year for five years. In addition, China’s national park and forest system will add new green corridors to reconnect fragmented wildlife populations and launch crackdowns on illegal trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products. China’s history in meeting its greenhouse gas reduction targets has been consistently to under promise and over deliver.

China, it should also be noted, holds $1 trillion dollars in US treasury instruments that help facilitate the enormous import flow of goods from China to the United States. The fiscal and monetary interconnections between the United States and China makes it clear that it would be an embrace of quick global economic collapse for these two countries to cut ties beyond periodic sniping around the margins. This is certainly clear to China, which has long term plans to greatly increase the size of the domestic economy and reduce the need for enormous exports. Formally adopted on 11th March 2021, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan focuses on a more inward-looking ‘new developmental stage’ targeting ‘quality development.’ From 2021 to 2025 the plan prioritizes what it calls the “internal cycle,” to strengthen the domestic economy and consolidate social development. The focus is on reducing reliance on foreign technology through aggressive made-in-China high tech efforts.

At the same time, the Pentagon notes in its 2021 report Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China that China’s aim is for the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) to reach parity with the West by 2049. According to the Pentagon, “In 2017, General Secretary Xi Jinping laid out two PLA modernization goals… to the 19th Party Congress: to ‘basically complete’ PLA modernization by 2035 and to transform the PLA into a ‘world class’ military by 2049.”

Despite the saber rattling emanating from the nationalist chattering classes in both Washington and Beijing, both China and the US recognize both economic and military reality that strongly discourages military conflict.

An opening for cooperation

Of enormous significance for global futures is US‒China cooperation on global greenhouse gas reduction strategies. UN COP climate conferences based on consensus of all nations without US‒China leadership will be unable to reach effective and enforceable agreements on greenhouse gas reduction. This is the reality of COP futility, unless China and the US put their weight on the scales.

On 12th November 2021, as COP26 in Glasgow ground on, Presidents Xi and Biden announced that the US and China will cooperate on greenhouse gas reduction and seek common and more aggressive climate roles. This is a path toward global ecological survival as well as ecological economic growth and social and ecological justice driven by constructive competition between rivals.

The United States and China recognize the essential need to exercise global leadership to prevent climate disaster. Now is the opportunity to plan and implement effective climate action between the two global leaders and rivals. We share common needs for a sustainable environment as opposed to self-destruction and collapse, for sustainable economic growth and for an effective pursuit of social and ecological justice. The view of how to approach these common ends differs substantially in Beijing and Washington between China’s one party state and the US version of capitalist democracy. Make no mistake, our common futures rest on effective cooperation between China and the US in pursuit of a sustainable and just global future. Cooperation and competition must characterize the future of these two countries.


World’s Largest economies (Wikipedia).
Carbon Futures (CNN).
China Reforestation (Good News Network).
China’s 5-year plan 2021-2025 (MERICS Organization).
Pentagon View of China’s Military: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.