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The Limitations of John Kerry’s Visit

Jul 28, 2023
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

From July 16 to 19, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry visited China. He was the third senior American official to visit recently, following Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. High on his agenda was cooperation with China on climate issues. Kerry’s visit was conducive to the recovery of the overall bilateral relationship, as were the others, but it failed to fundamentally increase the momentum.

Kerry served as secretary of state in the Barack Obama administration and has been the special envoy for climate issues since President Joe Biden took office. So the resumption of climate negotiations is indeed a positive development.

For a long time, the Democratic Party has paid more attention to climate change than has the Republican Party. On Donald Trump’s watch, the United States withdrew from the Paris agreement but Biden, thankfully, on his first day in office, signed an instrument to bring the country back in. He also signed a $430 billion bill in August aimed at mitigating climate impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions, which was billed as the most significant piece of climate legislation in U.S. history.

As intense heat grips large parts of the planet this summer, global warming has become an indisputably acknowledged fact. It requires that President Biden, who is seeking re-election in 2024, and the Democratic Party behind him, to take steps that can yield practical results.

The resolution of global climate problems depends on cooperation between the world’s two largest economies: China and the United States. It was reported that before Kerry’s visit, his office stated that his purpose was to engage with China on addressing the climate crisis and to exchange ideas on promoting the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, more commonly referred to as COP28.

As a veteran member of the Democratic Party, Kerry has visited China twice as Biden’s special envoy and formed a good working relationship with Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative for climate change affairs. Climate negotiations were suspended, however, following the visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the former U.S. speaker of the House of Representatives, amid a continuous deterioration of bilateral relations. In this context, Kerry’s third visit to Beijing represents the resumption of long-suspended climate negotiations and is a positive development.

Climate change, however, is only one of many issues in the China-U.S. relationship and won’t play a decisive role in stabilizing relations between the two countries. Although Kerry’s visit to China helps, it won’t fundamentally enhance their momentum. Since Biden took office, he has retained his predecessor’s aggressive containment policy against China. Under the so-called 3C policy (cooperation, competition, confrontation), cooperation in such areas as climate and people-to-people exchanges dwindles while competition and the chance of confrontation increase. The Taiwan question in the diplomatic sector and the chip blockade in the economic sector are the most prominent issues.

Therefore, even though Kerry’s visit promoted climate consultations, it will be difficult for bilateral relations to recover so long as Washington focuses on undermining China’s core interests as part of its containment policy.

At present, proponents of a hard-line stance against China in the U.S. Congress believe that climate cooperation should be separated from overall relations because it will not produce any positive spillover effects. Even Kerry stated that climate cooperation should be considered independently.

This viewpoint, which decouples the issue of climate change from the overall bilateral relationship is neither constructive nor realistic. The hardliners in Congress do not want to see any improvement in relations, worrying that this could spill over from climate to other fields such as people-to-people exchanges and economic development. Kerry’s statement revealed that he is more concerned that the general tensions will affect consultations on climate issues.

In short, one or several visits by senior U.S. officials to China cannot solve thorny problems between the two countries, but one is better than none. When talking about Kerry’s visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular news conference on July 17:

“Climate change is a common challenge facing humanity. … The Chinese side will act in the spirit of the meeting between the two heads of state in Bali, have an in-depth exchange of views with the U.S. side on issues related to climate change and work with the U.S. to meet challenges and enhance the well-being of people in the world and generations to come.”

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