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Is China truly becoming a world leader?

BEIJING — When President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris agreement on climate change in June, all eyes turned to China.

The world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but also the biggest investor in renewable energy, China had been praised for pledging to act against climate change under the accord.

When the U.S. stepped back from the deal, China once again received accolades, this time for standing by it. Analysts and media predicted that China was going to be the world's new climate leader. They may have been too bullish.

The Chinese leadership was in Brussels at a EU-China summit when Trump made the announcement. Together with their European counterparts, they drafted a statement in staunch support of the Paris accord. The draft paper was widely circulated.

Environmentalists exhaled in relief and waited for the two parties to announce it.

But they never did.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had decided to use the statement as a bargaining chip to secure EU support for China's accession to "market economy status" with the World Trade Organization. When that didn't happen, Li refused to sign the climate statement.

As the U.S. becomes more isolated under Trump, China has entered the spotlight as the unlikely world leader in areas such as climate and trade. Its standing will be put to a test during the G-20 summit of major industrial and emerging economies in Hamburg, on Friday and Saturday.

But as the Brussels episode illustrates, China's journey toward global leadership is of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind. Its high ambitions are undermined by a lack of transparency and a penchant for bending the rules, observers say.

"Taking on global leadership is too much, too soon for China," Shanghai University professor Jiang Shixue told the state-run Global Times, referring to the country's role in fighting climate change.

China invested US$78.3 billion in renewable energies last year, topping both the EU and the U.S. It has pledged an additional US$360 billion in investment by 2020, and is already employing more than 40 percent of the renewable energy sector's worldwide workforce.

But critics say China doesn't lead in the sense of making suggestions, working to persuade others, or going above and beyond goals it sets for itself. Moreover, it continues to export coal-fired power plants and other polluting technologies.

But once the world starts talking about China as a leader, it is already halfway there.

"We underestimate the power of perception," said Mikko Huotari from the China institute Merics in Berlin.

China is also building itself up as a defender of free trade, in contrast with Trump's protectionist measures.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in January delivered a memorable defense of free trade and globalization, in a Davos speech that has since been dubbed "the sermon on the mount."

On Tuesday, Li echoed some of the same ideas as he opened an event known as the Summer Davos in the Chinese city of Dalian.

Free trade "is the precondition of fair trade," Li said in reference to Trump's push for "fair" trade deals and additional tariffs. Li promised China would further open access to its manufacturing and service sectors and treat foreign and domestic companies as equals.

In practice, China maintains some of the steepest barriers to its own markets, critics say. European companies last month said they find it difficult to conduct business in China and feel less welcome than before.

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