Bound to lead? China's role in climate change governance between perception, conception, and behaviour
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date20/12/2023
The puzzle this thesis investigates is the narrative of China as an obstructor to climate change mitigation around 2009, especially at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), and as a climate leader around the 2015 COP21, despite similar policy actions and diplomatic behaviour. To examine this puzzle, the thesis analyses leadership as a social role relationship between leaders (here China) and followers as well as co-leaders. Based on a role theoretical framework, it asks: “How did national role conceptions (NRCs) and socialisation affect China’s leadership role in climate change from 2002 to 2018?” As a theoretical contribution, the thesis re-conceptualises leadership as a master role with six auxiliary roles, synthesised from international relations and role theory research. They include initiator, agenda-setter, mediator/broker, representative, visionary, and example. Combining it with but going beyond conventional leadership types, this approach allows to analyse both the function of a leader in a group and the various mechanisms of influence. Moreover, through utilising role theoretical concepts, it is possible to examine followers’ agency as socialisers of a leader and the possibility of co-leadership, which addresses shortcomings in the existing leadership literature. To answer the research question, the thesis analyses if and how China’s role performance in the auxiliary roles was influenced by other negotiation parties’ expectations and socialisation efforts on the one hand, and its own understandings of its role and domestic contestation, on the other. The analysis finds that in this role location process, industrialised country parties were the main narrators of the narrative. For 2002 to 2012, it shows how their quickly increasing expectations before COP15 led to a mismatch with Chinese NRCs. Furthermore, domestic contestation of Chinese policymakers’ NRCs until COP15 constrained performance of a more ambitious role. This resulted in negative perceptions of China’s role performance as not in line with expected responsibility and capability – different from the majority of developing country parties. However, the nascent split of the G-77 into socialisers with lower and higher expectations led to further role conflicts for China. The thesis’ finding of China’s tactical use of role strain before COP15 also contributes to our knowledge about how emerging economies utilise the notion of limited material capabilities tactically to elude responsibilities while highlighting political willingness. Different to COP15, geopolitical context and China’s emissions profile did not have a strong influence on perceptions of China’s role at COP21. However, China’s performance of the auxiliary roles was still marked by role conflicts, due to the deepening divergence among G-77 countries regarding their expectations for China. The analysis shows that rather than accepting a nominal co-leadership role with industrialised countries, China solved its role conflicts through providing leadership acts outside the UN framework, thereby acting on the NRCs of ‘cooperator’, ‘responsible major country’, and ‘partner/supporter of developing countries’. Remarkably, the domestic narration of the ‘leader’ NRC evolved through both challengers’ and advocates’ inputs. Nevertheless, China’s willingness to take a non-shared leadership role is questionable. Other NRCs such as ‘cooperator’ have had a considerably higher salience than ‘leader’ during both the Hu-Wen and Xi-Li administrations. As a contribution to knowledge, this research demonstrates that exercising the full leadership role-set is not necessary to be perceived as a climate leader, and alter expectations are as important for the recognition in the master and auxiliary roles as ego’s own role conceptions. Furthermore, the case study shows that role conflicts between auxiliary roles are possible to be analysed empirically, which contributes to role theory’s advancement on investigating role dissonance. Regarding domestic role contestation, the thesis illustrates another case of the existence of horizontal and vertical contestation in an authoritarian system, the constraining and enabling effects on foreign policy behaviour, and similar conflict solving mechanisms to democratic case studies. In China’s case, a strengthened executive was able to curb contestation in policymaking circles; individuals’ NRCs and their positions in the political elite matter; and public opinion combined with nationalism can define the boundaries of acceptable role behaviour.