What’s behind China’s shift to environmental diplomacy?

CHINA’S infrastructure investments across the Global South are well documented. Less well known, however, is China’s turn to environmental diplomacy. Amid rising geopolitical tensions and hard-power politics, China is also leveraging soft power. This shift is marked by environment- and development-focused initiatives, such as the BRI Green Development Coalition in 2017 and the Global Development Initiative in 2021.

Both align with President Xi Jinping’s intention to “build a global ecological civilisation” – that is, to create a civilisation in which humans are in harmony with the environment, in China and overseas.

Indeed, according to the final pillar of Xi Jinping thought on ecological civilisation, China must “deeply participate in global environmental governance”. And so China’s environmental diplomacy has grown sharply over the past decade.

Just as the infrastructure focus of the BRI in 2013 responded to the need to export excess capacity in large-scale building and construction, the current greening of the BRI responds to the need to export China’s excess capacity when it comes to green development.

This includes not just electric vehicles and renewables technologies, but ecological practices and projects that fall within the scope of what are now being called “nature-based solutions”.

China has for decades, if not centuries, been experimenting with large-scale ecological projects to prevent desertification, flooding, pollution and, most recently, climate change, unbeknown to many in the West.

There is now a push from within the Chinese government to share the lessons learned across the globe.


The term “nature-based solutions” refers to the under-explored potential of leveraging the natural world to address socio-environmental challenges. The idea is that they offer “green” or more “natural” solutions (such as tree planting for carbon capture and storage, or mangrove restoration for flood management) in contrast to – or in combination with – more conventional engineered or “grey” solutions.

The term became popular in China following the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York and has since mushroomed in Chinese academic and policy documents. In 2022, China outpaced the US and UK to become the number-one academic publisher in English on nature-based solutions.

China has been implementing some version of nature-based solutions for decades, if not centuries – only not under that name. As early as the 13th century, already facing a largely deforested landscape, residents in southern China initiated large-scale reforestation projects to restore the ecosystem and invest in future growth.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, similar projects were initiated at the national level, including the country’s Three North Shelterbelt (popularly known as the Great Green Wall) in 1978 and the Grain for Green program in 1999.

These planting drives have helped make China the number-one contributor to global greening trends over the past two decades – far more than any other country.

China’s nature-based solutions initiatives reflect the global norm but are also in certain ways distinctly Chinese projects.

They can be vast, such as the Great Green Wall and Grain for Green projects, covering large swathes of the country and spanning decades or centuries. They also often involve a high degree of social, political and material engineering alongside the ecological – blurring the boundaries between ‘green’ and ‘grey’, natural and engineered.


Ecological civilisation is a Chinese paradigm with limited global traction, but nature-based solutions have worldwide appeal, and they provide a way for China to fulfill the mandate of building a global ecological civilisation by disseminating Chinese environmental experience across the Global South.

This is because both concepts aspire to a societal shift in which humans do not dominate or conquer nature, but rather adhere to its rules and rhythms to realise shared prosperity.

There are three modes through which China engages with nature-based solutions – and environmental diplomacy more generally – across the Global South: triangle cooperation through the UN; direct multilateral and bilateral cooperation, and greening infrastructure.

This cooperation is spread unevenly in the Global South.

In central Asia, and especially Southeast Asia, where China’s diplomatic ties have historically been strongest, a diversity of projects that fall under the broad umbrella of nature-based solutions are ongoing, many of which are beginning to be actively rebranded as nature-based solutions.

The scale of involvement is lower in Africa, where diplomatic relations with China have not historically been as strong. Yet, Sino-African cooperation projects demonstrate the focus on agriculture and infrastructure is being reframed in terms of nature-based initiatives. Alongside this reframing of existing projects, new projects exclusively devoted to nature-based solutions are cropping up.

Latin America, however, has yet to see any dedicated partnership projects.


China’s global environmental initiatives are growing, but hardly replacing those of the West. Via “triangle cooperation” through the UN, rather than directly competing, China is learning how to pursue environmental diplomacy along the lines of conventional Western donors.

But bilateral and multilateral environmental initiatives between China and Global South countries not involving Western nations or the UN are on the rise as well, especially in Asia and slowly in Africa. This allows China to experiment with ecological projects Western donors have thus far neglected.

Beyond the ecological approach, China’s diplomatic approach follows non-interventionist principles, side-stepping the conditional requirements and governance reforms typically imposed by Western development assistance.

As China is a part of the Global South, its environmental diplomacy has none of the colonial overtones and tensions associated with the longstanding North-South divide that plague nearly all major global environmental negotiations.

Chinese environmental diplomacy thus creates an opening for non-Western countries to exert greater influence in the global arena, an important factor when it comes to global environmental governance, which has been almost exclusively Western-led.

While there is ample room for Western and Chinese environmental diplomacy to coexist, the latter has an undeniable appeal from the perspective of many Global South countries.

Although Chinese institutions have largely adopted the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s definition of nature-based solutions, they advocate expanding the definition to allow countries to explore how to deploy the concept as best fits their particular eco-developmental circumstances.

With China a rising proponent vis-à-vis Western nations, initiatives in the Global South involving nature-based solutions may increasingly reflect ‘Chinese-style’ approaches that “focus on exporting industrial scale forestry” and other “large-scale Chinese state-backed interventions in Earth systems”, rather than a narrower approach that prioritises nature conservation and grassroots social participation.

Annah Zhu is an assistant professor at Wageningen University and the author of ‘Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China’.

The Star, June 2, 20224. https://www.thestar.com.my/…/what039s-behind-china039s…

What's behind China's shift to environmental diplomacy?