America’s Soft Power Secret Weapon Against China – The Environment
(Chinatopix via AP)
America’s Soft Power Secret Weapon Against China – The Environment
(Chinatopix via AP)
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The ongoing domestic narrative contrasting the approaches of the Trump and Biden Administrations concerning environmental issues is overshadowing an important fact: The United States continues to achieve numerous environmental successes, which serve as a critical soft power weapon against China. Our leadership in environmental quality, conservation, and science provides a powerful counterweight to China’s increasingly malign influence and has made the U.S. a preferred partner over the People’s Republic of China in view of its extensive environmental abuses.

Simply contrasting the activities of China and the U.S. in a variety of environmental indicators paints a compelling picture.

  • Between 2014-2017, a global increase in the ozone-depleting gas CFC-11 was observed, and analysis determined the source to be centered in Eastern China, proving Beijing to be in violation of the Montreal Protocol despite falsely reporting otherwise. The U.S., on the other hand, has followed the agreement and continues to lead the world in monitoring ozone-depleting gases and calling on China to meet its obligations.
  • China emits more greenhouse gases than the rest of the developed combined, more than tripling emissions over the past three decades. Starkly contrasting this is U.S. energy-related emissions which have decreased by 21 percent between 2005-2020.
  • China is a leading source of marine plastic debris.  The presence of plastics in the ocean costs the maritime, fishing, and tourism industries billions of dollars every year and threatens food security and public health.  Multiple U.S. agencies work to prevent and remove marine debris domestically, and in 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the release of the U.S. Federal Strategy for Addressing the Global Issue of Marine Litter – the first whole of government approach to the problem.
  • China's Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing activities are destroying global fish stocks and damaging the economies of other nations. IUU fishing by China’s distant water fishing fleet (DWF) is so severe that it is deemed a national security threat. The Coast Guard, NOAA, and the State Department co-chair an interagency working group directed by the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (SAFE) Act of 2019 to coordinate the U.S. response to IUU fishing, and this was supported by interagency actions and agreements of both the previous and current Administrations.
  • One of the most egregious impacts of China’s One Belt One Road initiative is the destruction of coral reefs in the South China Sea to illegally build islands for military bases. This practice is destroying critical fishery habitats for developing nations in the region, negatively affecting water quality, polluting adjacent land, and leading to wildlife mortality of protected species. Conversely, the U.S. is working to protect and restore coral reefs in U.S. territorial waters and to support efforts to restore coral in the Pacific and Caribbean. This work is critical to the tourism and fisheries economies of U.S. partners in those regions. 

Between 2018-2021, the U.S. has been promoting environmental science and conservation partnerships in a wide range of international activities. Events the authors were directly involved with include:

While U.S. competition with China is almost always assessed through military, technology, and economic terms, environmental activities such as those described here have proved to be equally important. By boosting the international programs of U.S. environmental agencies, we can build up our arsenal of this soft power secret weapon that is winning the hearts and minds of critical partner nations.


Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., (U.S. Navy, Ret.) is the former Deputy Administrator at NOAA and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. Prior to NOAA, he served for 32 years in the U.S. Navy, completing his career as the Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy.

Lexa Skrivanek , Ph.D., is an Associate Program Officer for the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Formerly she was a Knauss Fellow with NOAA.



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