China, Socialisation and the Legitimacy of Environmental Foreign Policy

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Written by James Lo

China’s environmental foreign policy can be split in two stages. From 1980s to early 2000s, socialisation occurred through the interactions between China and international regimes such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). However, post 2009, China’s environmental foreign policy was orientated around the idea of legitimacy within the international sphere. This case study is crucial as one of the crucial debates that is currently raging on is “How will the West accommodate China’s rise?”. The analysis on environmental foreign policy can serve as a case study for this question.

Theoretical approaches


Socialisation acts in two stages. Stage one is where an actor learns new norms espoused in international regimes and institutions. [1] The key here is the frequent interactions between the international regime and the actor. Through these interactions, the actor is persuaded through dialogue and negotiations and become more receptive to new norms. The actor then adopts these new norms within its own identity and, over time, integrates these norms within its foreign policy. Stage two explains why states will adopt the norms domestically. Actors will act on those norms due to several factors – ‘mimicking, persuasion and social influence’[2]. Mimicking refers to the actors’ wanting to be similar to the other countries within the international sphere. Persuasion refers to the ‘noncoercive communication of new norms…that make new courses of action seem entirely reasonable and appropriate’[3]. Social influence is the amalgamation of several sub-processes that can be used to induce the actor to adopt the norm including ‘back-patting, shaming, social liking and status maximisation’[4]. These processes act to influence states to be more open to accept the norms that international regimes espouse. Socialisation is said to be completed when the new norms become the “law of the land”.

Norms and Legitimacy

Norms are defined as standards of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity.[5] Accepted norms act to promote the concept of correct behaviour in a society as they prompt justification of states’ actions. States therefore reshape conceptions of their interest through the constant testing of these identities and norms against actual events. If states act in accordance with the norms, they are said to gain legitimacy. Legitimacy is important to states because the international sphere is a repeat game. If states act legitimately, it can positively influence their future interactions with others states as it removes possible clashes. If states act contrary to the norms, other states can use such instances to criticise the state and gain leverage in future negotiations.

Case Study

Part 1: Socialisation

China is socialised in environmental protection norms through interactions with international regimes, in particular with the UNFCCC. China representatives attended the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. The Environmental Protection Leadership Group was established, subsequently, in 1973. From 1990 onwards, China has been a participant of the UNFCCC. Through the interaction between China and international regimes, their interests slowly changed, and gradually increased in the 1990s.

The UNFCCC imparted new norms onto China in two main ways – interest-guiding and imparting of knowledge. UNFCCC’s financial mechanism – the Global Environment Facility (GEF) – was crucial in influencing China’s interests. China was the largest recipient for GEF funding.[6] Through targeting different bureaucracies within China including the Committee of Development and Planning and Ministry of Science and Technology, GEF bound the interests of the various departments within China together in terms of environmental policies and guided them towards UNFCCC’s goals. GEF’s investments therefore defined the interests of Chinese environmental policy through its various investments into Chinese projects.[7].

Knowledge was another way which UNFCCC socialised Chinese behaviour on environmental policy. China lagged behind Europe in terms of climate science in the 1990s and the UNFCCC served as an educational mechanism for China. Yu found that UNFCCC’s interactions with different bureaucratic departments within China, coupled with the complex nature of the climate problem and language, led to bureaucracies having to communicate with each other and coordinate their actions.[8] The increasing interactions with UNFCCC ‘changed the norms of Chinese officials’[9] from viewing climate affairs as affairs of the state in 1997 to allowing more collaboration with experts and professionals from 2000 onwards. The interactions with the UNFCCC therefore socialised China’s environmental policies as they bound China’s interests and guided it in a direction in tandem with UNFCCC’s norms of environmental protection.

Part 2: Legitimacy

The second part focuses on how the idea of legitimacy changed China’s environmental foreign policy since 2010. Having adopted the environmental protection norms that international regimes such as UNFCCC promote throughout the late 20th century, China has since changed their domestic agenda. A leading group in climate change was established in 2007, while domestic targets such as cutting emissions by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020 was introduced.[10] China also became a larger actor in terms of regional environmental policies in bilateral and multilateral terms in 2000s. China signed 16 bilateral agreements and memorandums with a large range of countries ranging from US and Russia to Pakistan and Tajikistan.[11] China was also been active in multilateral environmental cooperation in East Asia, signing agreements such as the Northeast Asian Subregional Programme of Environmental Cooperation in 1993 and attending meetings such as East Asia Summit Environment Ministers Meeting in 2007.[12]

The turning point of China’s environmental foreign policy is at the Copenhagen Convention in 2009. Despite China’s implementation of environmental protection norms domestically and regionally, they were still blamed for the catastrophic failure of the Copenhagen Convention. Western governments and media heavily criticised the role of Chinese negotiators and their refusal to endorse any targets. Ed Miliband, the UK Climate Change Secretary at the time, accused China of ‘hijacking’[13] the conference and blocking any potential agreements. Socialisation, therefore, by itself was insufficient to paint China as a legitimate actor in environmental protection norms within the international sphere.

China recognised that it had to adopt a more outward and active role within the international sphere to gain legitimacy. This led to a change in the position of China’s environmental foreign policy. China was more outspoken compared to pre-2009 and adopted a more active mannerism in the international sphere to show other countries that they have adopted the environmental protection norms domestically. It signed multiple pacts with US, as well as playing a key part in securing the Paris Agreement in 2015. However, this change in stance has not changed China’s internal environmental protection targets. For example, China committed to increase the ‘non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumptions to around 20% by 2030’[14] in 2014 in a public agreement with the US. This was aligned with China’s own internal target set in 2013 to increase the share to 15% by 2020. Therefore, China’s increasingly active stance post 2010 was just a public pronouncement of China’s pre-existing environmental protection norms. By publicly entering into deals and agreements with other countries, China is perceived to have obtained legitimacy.


The evolution of China’s environmental foreign policy can therefore be explained by constructivist notions of socialisation and legitimacy. The earlier stages from 1980s to early 2000s is marked by China gradually adopting environmental protection norms from international regimes such as the UNFCCC. From 2010, China’s more outward stance on environmental foreign policy is marked by a drive for legitimacy and recognition. However, there are of course other factors that do influence China’s environmental foreign policy that I haven’t discussed – examples include China’s grand strategy and their role as the leader of developing countries, China’s changing conception of sovereignty, bureaucratic politics and the domestic sentiment towards climate change.

[1] Johnston, A. 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Finnemore, M. & Sikkink, K. 1998. p.891

[6] Yu, HY. 2008. p.84

[7] For more detailed analysis of GEF, read Chapter 7 of YHY

[8] Ibid. p.105

[9] Ibid. p.108

[10] He, Lichao. 2010. p.7

[11] Otsuka, K. 2018. p.24

[12] Ibid.

[13] Miliband, E. 2009.

[14] The White House. 2014.


Miliband, E. 2009. Copenhagen climate summit: Ed Miliband accuses China of ‘hijacking’ conference. Accessed at

Finnemore, M. & Sikkink, K. 1998. International Norm Dynamics and Political Change. Accessed at

He, Lichao. 2010. China’s Climate Change Policy from Kyoto to Copenhagen: Domestic Needs and International Aspirations. Accessed at

Johnston, A. 2008. Social states: China in International Institutions, 1980-2000. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press

Otsuka, K. 2018.  Shift in China’s commitment to regional environmental governance in Northeast Asia? Accessed at

The White House. 2014. U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. Accessed at

Yu, HY. 2008. Global warming and China’s Environmental Diplomacy. New York, US. Nova Science Publishers Inc.

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