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Xie Zhenhua, Vice-Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission of China and head of Chinese delegation to the UN climate talks, speaks during a news conference in Durban on Dec. 5, 2011.Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

With a new confidence and swagger, China has emerged as the rock star of the Durban climate summit. Its every word is dominating headlines and provoking excited analysis from climate negotiators.

Photographers and television journalists swarmed around the chief Chinese negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, as he entered a news conference on Monday to announce his list of conditions for considering a legally binding treaty on carbon emissions after 2020.

His announcement was far from a breakthrough – and it only reinforces the mounting evidence that the world will slide into a legal vacuum on climate rules over the next decade – but it was one of the few glimmers of hope at the stalled negotiations.

The irony is that China remains one of the world's worst polluters, with its cities among the smoggiest on the planet, its carbon emissions rising dramatically, and its leaders refusing to accept any legally binding treaty to limit its growth for the rest of this decade.

Yet China is crucial to any global agreement because the key opponents of the Kyoto climate treaty – including the United States and Canada – have vowed that they will never accept a binding treaty unless China is equally bound by it. If China can somehow be persuaded to accept a global treaty, the other dominoes could fall into line.

Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent, who spent his first full day at the Durban talks on Monday, has often cited China as a reason for his refusal to consider extending the Kyoto treaty. He is even reportedly preparing to announce Canada's full withdrawal from Kyoto. At a press briefing on Monday, he refused to budge from his opposition to Kyoto, despite the signs that China is becoming more flexible in its position.

After years of preferring to slink into the background, China is now a powerful player in the climate talks. Beijing has dramatically expanded its trade and investment in Africa in recent years, and has bolstered its political and diplomatic influence at the UN and other world bodies.

And it is demonstrating a much greater assertiveness at Durban: talking to journalists, giving speeches, holding daily media events, and even – for the first time – setting up a "China Pavilion" to promote its views.

Video screens are playing a constant loop of pro-China advertising at the pavilion, and friendly staffers are handing out stacks of glossy brochures and favourable newspaper commentaries to visiting media and foreign officials.

"From a public-relations perspective, China is definitely getting a little more savvy," said Changhua Wu, the China director of The Climate Group, a non-profit organization.

"In the past, China was doing so much, but it wasn't prepared to talk about it. Now look at the China Pavilion. They're much better positioned. They feel confident."

Mr. Xie's comments on Monday sparked a flurry of interest and optimistic responses at Durban. But in reality, he merely said that Beijing might be willing to consider accepting legal limits in a global treaty in 2020 under certain conditions. It was a far less substantial comment than some observers had hoped.

Moreover, his conditions seem unrealistic. He is demanding, for example, that other industrialized countries extend their commitments under Kyoto, even after the treaty expires at the end of next year. Few countries outside Europe have shown any interest in this. With only Europe on board, just 15 per cent of global carbon emissions would be covered by a legal treaty.

Canada's chief negotiator, Guy Saint-Jacques, said he'll study the Chinese proposal, but he sounded skeptical. "We haven't seen any details, and the devil is in the details," he said.

Elliot Diringer, executive vice-president of the U.S.-based Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, said there are "slim hopes" of agreement between China and the United States. Their only real hope at Durban, he said, is to agree on a vague and ambiguous "statement of intent" to move toward the long-term objective of having a binding treaty – with all of its legal content to be negotiated later.

The chief U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, said any legal treaty must be binding equally on everyone, including China, or else it would become a "Swiss cheese" agreement, riddled with loopholes.

Since the United States is insisting on "legal parity" among all countries in any climate treaty, and since the major developing nations such as China seem unprepared for legal parity, any agreement between them in the near future is "highly unlikely," Mr. Stern said.