China Shrugs Off Biden's Criticism for Skipping COP26, Highlights Renewable Energy Feats

Chinese President Xi Jinping's absence from the Group of 20 summit and United Nations climate conference drew criticism from U.S. President Joe Biden. But China has dismissed such comments by pointing to its recent strides in reforestation and renewable energy.

China, the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, has made promises to begin curbing its output by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. The U.S. and other countries have called on China to pledge bigger commitments, which Xi's administration said will only be possible with political concessions.

While speaking at the COP26 summit Monday, Biden said that it was a "big mistake" for China not to make an in-person appearance at the talks. In response to the U.S. president's comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Wednesday described China's response to climate issues as "concrete," citing the country's renewable energy and reforestation feats.

Xi has not left China since his January 2020 trip to Myanmar, and the country at large has enforced strict travel restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Chinese President Absent From Global Summits
Though Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence from the Group of 20 summit and United Nations climate conference has drawn criticism from U.S. President Joe Biden, China has dismissed the comments by pointing to its recent strides in reforestation and renewable energy. Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, and Xi pose for the media during their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Jan. 17, 2020. Aung Shine Oo/AP Photo

China has come under heavy pressure to reveal more information about the origin of the pandemic and has been accused of mismanaging the outbreak and then seeking to cover up its mistakes.

China has also come under heavy criticism over its policies toward Muslims in its Xinjiang region and its crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong. Like all Chinese leaders, Xi is extremely image conscious and his public appearances are carefully choreographed to avoid potentially embarrassing confrontations.

His formerly heavy travel schedule took him across continents, with first lady Peng Liyuan, an accomplished musician, on hand to add a bit of glamor and a human touch.

Those travels included trips to several African nations and a meeting with the former Japanese emperor in Tokyo. Xi rode in a gilded carriage with Britain's Queen Elizabeth and paid a visit to North Korea's capital that included a ride through city streets lined by tens of thousands of cheering citizens of the hard-line communist state.

Such travels have underscored China's more assertive foreign policy, as the world's second-largest economy seeks to exert its influence beyond East Asia with Xi's signature "Belt and Road" overseas infrastructure investment program.

The president's decision not to attend the meetings in Rome and Glasgow seems at odds with that policy, although Xi isn't alone in staying away. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has aligned with China in opposing U.S. influence in world affairs, also remained at home.

"They've lost an ability to influence people around the world and all the people here at COP — the same way, I would argue, with regard to Russia," Biden said while speaking about China.

Friction in bilateral relations is complicating cooperation on climate change between the two countries, said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University.

Biden has taken COP26 as "an important occasion for China and the U.S. to compete for global influence, ideology and image," said Shi, who attributed Xi's absence from the meetings to China's "zero tolerance" approach to dealing with the pandemic, which has been largely controlled within the country.

Despite not leaving China, Xi has remained in contact with foreign heads of state through virtual meetings, said Zhao Kejin, who teaches international relations at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

The U.S. wants Chinese cooperation in responding to climate change, but Beijing is also looking for changes in U.S. policy, including its support for the self-governing island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, Zhao said.

"This result was produced by the U.S. failing to integrate ties with China into its overall multilateral relationships," Zhao said.

Even without Xi's presence, China is an active participant in the Glasgow climate conference, with senior economics official and top climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua leading the Chinese delegation during the two weeks of meetings. Xie told reporters in Glasgow that China hopes nations will continue working toward the goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday said Xi's absence "doesn't mean the Chinese are not engaging" in the fight against climate change, but added that he wants China to do more to slash carbon emissions.

Johnson told reporters that China had already made a "substantial" commitment and praised Beijing's decision to end financing for overseas coal plants, though not yet at home.

Biden Speaks at COP 26
While speaking at the COP26 summit Monday, President Joe Biden said that it was a “big mistake” for China not to make an in-person appearance at the talks. Biden speaks during the World Leaders' Summit "Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment" session on day three of COP26 at SECC on November 2, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. Steve Reigate/Pool/Getty Images