Quick Take: John Kerry’s Visit to China

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Trip Recap

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, visited Shanghai from April 14 to 17 to “raise climate ambitions” ahead of President Joe Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate to be held virtually from April 22-23, and the U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) later this year.

Kerry spent two days in closed-door talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and, more importantly, got a virtual meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng. The Vice Premier, who ultimately owns China’s climate portfolio, is at a much higher level than State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Minister Wang Yi, who met with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, which is a strong indication of the importance of exploring climate cooperation. No media events were held, but the visit concluded with a joint statement addressing the climate crisis. We are still waiting for a final commitment that Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend President Biden’s April Summit.

Key Takeaways

  • Climate remains the great hope for bilateral cooperation. Clearly, the tone of this visit was markedly different from the engagement in Alaska, and the fact that Vice Premier Han Zheng was engaged reaffirms that climate is the best hope for engagement between the U.S. and China.
  • In the lead-up to the trip, Kerry addressed an Obama-era China policy critique: Just before his visit, Kerry told the media that the U.S. has no intention of compromising on security, economic, or human rights issues for the sake of a speedier climate change deal. As he said, “the climate issue is a free-standing issue.” The Obama team has been critiqued for compromising a lot with China in exchange for climate cooperation.
  • The media took a skeptical stance… According to Chinese media reports and social media chatter, one of the keywords describing Kerry’s visit was “insincere.” On the one hand, it was seen as a good thing that the U.S. sent a senior envoy to China to talk about climate, but on the other hand, there was criticism for not approaching China as an equal. The U.S. also, according to the coverage, took “petty actions” in advance of the trip, such as adding seven Chinese supercomputing companies to the Entity List, sending former high-level officials to visit Taiwan, and issuing a U.S.-Japan joint statement focused on countering the China threat.
  • …and the government postured. While Kerry was in China, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said during a press interview that “addressing climate change is not what others ask us to do. We are doing so on our own initiative.” Minister Le welcomed the U.S. return to international climate affairs under President Biden, but urged the U.S. to “redouble its efforts to make up for the time lost during its absence” when former U.S. President Trump withdrew from the Paris Accord. Vice Premier Han Zheng expressed willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on climate but noted “common but differentiated responsibilities.”
  • While Kerry was in town, President Xi held a three-way climate summit with the leaders of France and Germany. They exchanged views on cooperation in tackling climate change and on China-EU relations with a focus on the China Agreement on Investment (CAI), pandemic cooperation, and other key issues. Holding this summit, particularly in advance of the Biden summit, was a not-so-subtle reminder that the U.S. return to climate leadership is not particularly convincing given President Biden’s slim margin of victory. And, the U.S. is not the only leader that matters anymore. France and Germany are key drivers in the global climate governance system.

Looking Ahead

The familiar refrain about climate being one of the only areas of potential bilateral cooperation was reaffirmed by Kerry’s trip’s relative success and productivity; however, China made a point to remind the U.S. team that cooperation on climate is not without its challenges. Kerry’s visit to Shanghai may have struck a more conciliatory tone – or at least served as an immediate pressure valve for the tense bilateral relationship – but China is striking a more assertive and confident stance across the board as well as on climate by reminding the U.S. that they have relationships with U.S. allies too. In the near term, though, we will be watching whether or not President Xi attends President Biden’s climate summit later this week. All indications so far are that they are leaning toward attending, but the official announcement is pending, so they are building up the suspense and milking this for all its worth.

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