Scholars have argued that circular economy (CE) must be upscaled and globalized to address excessive resource extraction and waste generation. Many CE practitioners consider the first international CE agreement between China and the EU a milestone towards such an effort. This analysis shows why this expectation is premature. European and Chinese stakeholders’ optimistic and depoliticized CE narratives disable communication regarding development disparities, negative competition, and distrust, which shape geopolitical rivalry. While skeptical narratives that address political barriers exist, they fall short of suggesting alternatives. Based on 72 stakeholder interviews, 40 documents, and participant observation, these results highlight the critical importance of investigating narrative strategies to repoliticize environmental cooperation. Such narrative strategies would support contestation and negotiation on development disparities and open channels for the joint conceptualization of implementation scales for environmental strategies, circular or otherwise. We, therefore, propose using constructivist perspectives of international relations to explore discursive barriers and enablers to global environmental action.