The US is set to make a landmark lunge across the ideological divide next week with the unprecedented step of sending its most experienced crack climate negotiators to continue discussions with China about the future of the planet on the Middle Kingdom’s own territory. The US administration toyed with the idea of repeating Nixon’s success in sending a team of table tennis players as an initial gesture of goodwill, but it was soon decided that they could just as well use climate negotiators; presumably on the grounds that they are just as politically expendable given that the great American public may show some interest briefly but probably won’t care much at the mid-term elections, much like its interest in table tennis and foreign affairs in general.
Many are struck by the similarity between climate change negotiations and the original 1971 ping-pong diplomacy moment. A group of little known but highly skilled experts, used to meeting in airless halls in obscure towns like Bonn and Poznan, finding it hard to believe that their endeavours could have such crucial significance on the world at large, continue to take on one another at exchanging predictable and widely known moves at ever-increasing velocity until someone blinks at a crucial moment and concedes a point that they can never reclaim, to gasps of horror from a small but dedicated crowd of followers. Except in table tennis things tend to move a little faster, there’s usually a timely end and – crucially – a winner.
Other countries are watching the unfolding drama with acute interest and frustration at all the attention being focused on the US-China ping-pong axis. India, for one, is peeved that its position is not being considered in the debate with the importance it feels it deserves. “Do they not know” said a delegate, “that not only do we have 1.1 billion people, but amongst them we boast some of the finest cricketers in the world?” The cricket-mad mega-democracy would like to settle the matter with cricket rather than ping-pong, presumably so that whenever developed countries send an outswinging argument fizzing down the wicket in their direction, they will take a big swing and gleefully dispatch it into the stands for six runs*. For once, Pakistan stood behind its great political rival in supporting the motion to settle the climate dispute on the cricket pitch. Rumours that its negotiators have bets on the number of times the word ‘climate’ would be mentioned, and that the talks would stall on day 2 of COP16, are as yet unfounded. Brazil, also envious of the attention on ping-pong, would clearly prefer to work things out on the football field. Shimmying through all the other players, dazzling them with astonishing skill, building up a huge advantage only to realise that they’re not quite sure where the goal is, or how to score. The European Union, keen as ever to have its present felt in the negotiations, tried to muscle in on the new sporting enthusiasm on the grounds of early mover advantage seeing that it claims to have invented most of these sports in the first place. However the Union was soon floundering when asked by the UNFCCC what its national sport would be. “It’s rugby”. “No! It’s football” “No! Cricket” “No you’re wrong, it’s cross-country skiing” “How about tennis?” “Come on, surely football” “What about Gaelic football?” “I prefer handball”. At this point the Community started squabbling violently and disappeared into a side room to attempt to resolve the issue, yet to re-emerge; early indications suggest that the Commission’s proposal to adopt a sport played on a tennis court using footballs and cricket bats whilst wearing skis has not won much favour.
So the climate negotiations rumble on in Tianjin next week, probably without a table tennis bat in sight (though in China you never know) but with a lingering sense of lost direction. At least we can be sure of one thing, given that WordPress is still automatically filtered in PRC (especially for a post that contains the words China, diplomacy and democracy several times in close proximity), and that at least 2 visiting delegations have been banned by their capitals from taking any laptops or blackberries for fear of cyber-attack, none of them will be distracted by reading this… Come to think of it, none of them will be able to access facebook either – what will they get up to during those long boring interventions in plenary? (post-script: unless of course they have good VPNs, in which case it’s business as usual for filling time in plenary…)
* something like a home-run in baseball, in case anyone’s confused