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Interest groups in China’s environmental foreign relations

Global environmental governance is. in essence, relational. The 1972 United National Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) symbolises the beginning of “an expression of a changing view of mankind’s relationship to the earth”.1 It pointed out the unsustainability of the obsession with economic development based on the intensive use of natural resources. Two decades later, the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities was established at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to reflect the relationship between commitment to climate governance and the degree of industrialisation. One year before the Earth Summit, Beijing invited 41 countries to attend the “Conference of Developing Countries on Environment and Development” and issued the “Beijing Ministerial Declaration on Environment and Development”. The declaration pointed out the contradiction between environmental protection and the rights of developing countries to grow their economies, the different responsibilities between the so-called North and South in terms of international environmental cooperation and, subsequently, the justification for varying degrees of commitment to joint global efforts to address environmental challenges.2

Fast-forwarding to the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, the passionate speech given by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg served as a poignant reminder that global environmental governance concerns our relationship with our future and the question of our very survival. Existing research has broached the complexity of international environmental cooperation by looking at actors (states, transnational advocacy networks and economic entities), institutions and paradigms of global governance, as well as the ideational component behind the logic of environmental regimes.3 An eloquent depiction of the relational aspect of the field is presented in the theorisation of “earth system governance”, of which the architecture is “the interlocking web of principles, institutions and practices that shape decisions by stakeholders at all levels”.4 This approach allows us to locate global environmental governance between international relations (IR) and foreign policy analysis (FPA), the latter defined as “actor-specific theory and the Ground of International Relations”.5 The earth system governance definition not only concerns policy formation but also implementation, which is largely ignored in FPA.6

My book proposes the subject of environmental foreign relations for several reasons. First. I challenge the assumption that international environmental cooperation is still the province of national elites (politically and economically). Second, the research amis to bring back “implementation’' to benchmark the behaviour of sovereign states. The importance of implementation is articulated by Clarke in that “implementation is in itself a highly political part of the decision process” rather than purely “technical or administrative hi nature”.7 Third, it looks at the “feedback loop” between the local and national and even international levels in an attempt to look at the flip side of “internationalisation” of environmental governance and address the question of how local experience contributes to global governance. The theoretical foundation behind this curiosity is Kellee Tsai’s adaptive informal institutions: “responses to the chasm between formal institutions and practical interests and desires”.8 She argues that even in authoritarian regimes, institutions are “not simply imposed and enforced by state agents and other proprietors of formal institutions, [but] depend on human interaction for their survival and transformation”, bringing the “relational and interactive ontology”9 to our understanding of institutions and explaining “regime durability amid change”.10

In this respect, foreign policy is not the primary focus of this research. Rather, it is the formulation of the broader set of foreign relations that is more relevant to the research question of how domestic groups play then parts in China’s international cooperation. The relational dimension has two connotations: fust, it refers to relations between domestic and international players, which are expected to be a useful constituent of inter-state relations; second, and more abstractly, it acknowledges the relationship between policy formulation and implementation, the interaction of which engenders change. The relational aspect clarifies a misreading of the fragmentation of foreign policy-making. In China, foreign policy decision-making is not fragmented. What is fragmented is the broader sphere of foreign relations conducted by a plurality of actors and through which a diversity of messages and national images are sent out from China to the international audience.

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