Could climate change finally expose China as a global outlaw?

When John Kerry was announced as the Biden administration’s lead on climate change, he said that the cause would not be subordinated to any of the other critical issues in U.S.-China relations. Nor would it be used to trade off another area of concern.

In a March speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States’s relationship with China “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”

But Beijing rejected the idea of compartmentalization. Lü Xiang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, “U.S. officials would be too naïve if they believe China will accept dialogue and cooperation with no basis for equality and mutual respect.” 

Kerry last week learned that China meant what it said and the Biden administration may have to eat his words. He traveled to Tianjin in northeastern China, which now seems to be the designated holding place for U.S. supplicants seeking meetings with Chinese counterparts.  Kerry asked to meet with Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate representative. But, although Kerry flew almost 15,000 miles for the meeting, it never took place in person. Instead, Xie spoke with him by video link from Beijing, a call that just as easily could have been handled with Kerry in Washington.

China did not say the unorthodox arrangement was related to COVID-19 concerns, and it is widely seen as a diplomatic snub, perhaps as payback because the Biden administration shunted off the first high-level diplomatic meeting with Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan to Anchorage, Alaska, instead of Washington.

Xie did have a face-to-face meeting in Beijing with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in July, where he advised her that U.S.-China relations were in a state of “deadlock” that needed to be broken by some cooperative action. Climate issues have been the go-to example the Biden administration invariably mentions when describing areas where the U.S. and China can cooperate rather than compete with or confront each other. Kerry was prepared to tell his Chinese interlocutors that China’s continued use and expansion of coal-fired plants was not an example of cooperation in meeting the world’s existential environmental challenge.

But even before the substantive talks got under way, Foreign Minister Wang Yi joined the video link and immediately set an adversarial tone. He lectured Kerry that climate cooperation would not be possible without better overall U.S.-China relations, again rejecting Blinken’s and Kerry’s call for compartmentalization of issues. Wang said Washington, under the Trump administration and Biden’s so far, had made a “major strategic miscalculation [that caused] the sudden deterioration of bilateral relations in recent years.”

He warned that, while “the U.S. side wants the climate change cooperation to be an ‘oasis’ of China-U.S. relations … cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations. … The ball now is in the U.S. court.” Wang laid out specifics on what Washington must do if it wants China’s cooperation on climate change: America should “attach importance to and actively respond to the ‘two lists’ and ‘three bottom lines’ put forward by China.” The demands were first presented to Sherman by Xie during her Beijing visit.  

The  “three bottom lines” are essentially three no’s to govern U.S. behavior toward China:

  • No “challenge, slander or attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics”;
  • No “attempt to obstruct or interrupt China’s development process” through sanctions, tariffs, “long-arm jurisdiction,” or “technology blockades”; and
  • No infringement on “China’s state sovereignty or territorial integrity,” i.e., Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The “two lists” comprise cases of visa restrictions on individual Chinese citizens, constraints on the activities of both individuals and institutions in the United States, and sanctions on Communist Party officials for their human rights abuses.

Kerry told the news media he found the talks “very constructive and detailed,” and said: “I will certainly pass on [to the president] the full nature of the message that I received from Chinese leaders. On the one hand, we’re saying to them, ‘You have to do more to help deal with the climate.’ And on the other hand, their solar panels are being sanctioned, which makes it harder for them to sell them.”  

Kerry’s comments suggest he may be having second thoughts about not allowing his portfolio to undermine America’s human rights and other concerns. He has discovered that China has no intention of allowing the international focus on climate issues to undermine its own perceived core interests. While Western and other countries may be worrying about the survival of the planet, Beijing’s priority is the survival of the Chinese Communist Party.

In May, Kurt Campbell, who manages the China portfolio for Sullivan at the National Security Council, said the period of Chinese engagement, which he advocated for decades, had “come to an end. … The dominant paradigm between China and the U.S. would now be one of competition.”  

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded that it was “completely wrong” for Washington to define the bilateral relationship as competitive and said Beijing “firmly rejected the U.S.’s efforts to exclude, contain and suppress China under the banner of competition.”

Zhao was right that competition is the wrong term to describe the U.S.-China relationship, now that Beijing has explicitly taken climate cooperation off the table. It is once again worse than Campbell portrayed it. Using Blinken’s taxonomy of cooperation, competition and confrontation, the relationship can be described accurately as predominantly adversarial. 

That actually has been the case all along, though Beijing was happy to allow the West to believe it was in a cooperative, “win-win” relationship. It was not until the Trump administration that Washington recognized it had been the target in a one-sided cold war, and decided to confront its adversary more openly. The Biden team has a mixed record so far, following most of the Trump team’s confrontational approach, strengthening it in a few instances, and weakening it in some others. 

It may be that the climate change issue, which many of the world’s governments see as existential for humanity, will do what human rights concerns, trade violations, cyber theft and maritime and territorial aggression have failed to accomplish — that is, to demonstrate that China is an outlaw power that will have to be confronted by a global coalition of like-minded nations in a concerted, sustained manner, using economic, informational and other non-kinetic means before a military confrontation becomes inevitable. 

President Biden’s humiliating and catastrophic retreat from Afghanistan made that outcome dangerously more likely.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden foreign policy China–United States relations Climate change Jake Sullivan Joe Biden John Kerry Territorial disputes of China Wang Yi

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