Right climate for India-China talks on climate change

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

Article: Rastraraj Bhandari, Photo Credits: Iih

One of the casualties of the strain in relations between India and China will be the cooperation between the two of the world’s most populous countries on the climate crisis.

After the violent clash on Galwan Valley in Ladakh on 15 June that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead, the two countries have been taking tit-for-tat economic action against each other. The latest was India’s ban on 50 Chinese apps, including TikTok which had at least 125 million users in India. 

After a brief period in the 1950s of ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ bilateral bonhomie under Mao Zedong and Jawaharlal Nehru, things have not been the same. There is economic competition and three major border confrontations since the 1962 Himalayan war.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, Sino-Indian relations had actually improved with the two leaders having met multiple times since Modi came to power in India in 2014.

Modi’s visit to Xian in 2015 saw a breakthrough in bilateral relations, with the signing of 24 agreements ranging from economic and infrastructure development and military co-operation. Among the agreements signed were the ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Co-operation in Ocean Sciences, Climate Change and Cryosphere’ and the ‘MoU on Co-operation in Earthquake Science and Engineering.

But even while the two sides seem to have taken measures to de-escalate tensions along their disputed border, a new cold war has set in over the Himalaya just a time when the mountain range is thawing because of the impact of climate change.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in its ‘Himalayan Assessment’ last year said that one-third of the ice on the Himalaya would be gone by 2050 and two-thirds by the end of the century if measures are not taken to cut global emissions.

Although the specific details of the Xian MoUs between India and China are not available, they were taken as positive signs in that both countries recognise the climate crisis to be a pressing challenge in the region in the coming years. It was also an indirect acknowledgement of the fact that the two countries together produce one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions – China 28% and India 7%. 

But both countries also share common climate vulnerabilities such as depleting water resources, weather extremes resulting in floods and droughts, extreme heat stress and rising sea levels. Ironically, the very mountainous border both are fighting over is also Asia’s water tower, and Himalayan glaciers are the source of major rivers in India, China and the rest of Asia.

The China–India agreements on climate change were perhaps the strongest agreements and bilateral network between the two countries, and provides a salient case study on what the future of collaboration between China and India could look like.