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A White House divided cannot stand up to China

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In January, John Kerry explained the role he would play as President Biden’s lead official on climate change. As a member of the Cabinet and National Security Council, authorized to use a military aircraft for his diplomacy, he was adamant that his portfolio would not be sacrificed or used as leverage on other issues regarding China. “Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate,” he said. “That’s not going to happen. But climate is a critical, standalone issue.”

Other administration officials reflected that thinking in their initial public statements and interactions with Chinese officials. They were not reluctant to mount the same criticisms of China that their predecessors in the Trump administration had expressed, without regard for whether it might jeopardize cooperation with China on environmental matters.

But when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with their counterparts in Anchorage, Alaska, last February, they got an earful of vituperation. Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi lectured that Beijing would countenance no compartmentalization of issues and Washington should not expect cooperation on some while attacking China on others. Blinken and Sullivan held their ground and rebuffed the pair as “seeming to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance,” an unidentified U.S. official told reporters at the time.

Chinese officials used the same technique at a virtual meeting with Kerry in Tianjin, China, after embarrassing him by spurning his request to meet in Beijing. Kerry said they made “pointed” comments about the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship. 

“My response to them was, ‘Hey look, climate is not ideological. It’s not partisan, it’s not a geostrategic weapon or tool, and it’s certainly not day-to-day politics. It’s a global, not bilateral, challenge,’” he said. He told his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, “We think China can do more.”

Kerry also told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May that the Biden administration is not simply “relying on somebody’s word” to determine if China meets its climate obligations. “It’s not a matter of taking things by trust. It would be stupid, and malpractice, if we just set up a sort of trust thing.”

But Kerry came back from his rude treatment in China with a clear message to Biden: Washington can expect limited, if any, cooperation from Beijing on climate issues until overall relations improve — that is, until the United States stops criticizing and resisting Chinese misbehavior.

As the climate change conference approached in Glasgow, Scotland, and Beijing continued to withhold its promised climate cooperation, Kerry defaulted further to his historical roots of accommodating America’s adversaries and hoping vainly for reciprocity. According to reports out of the administration, he beseeched his colleagues to ease up on the pressure in other contentious areas in order to make progress on climate with China. He received pushback from Sullivan, and probably Blinken, who argued that soft-pedaling U.S.-China differences had not produced Chinese cooperation in the past. 

“We are not in the business of trading cooperation with China on climate change as a favor that Beijing is doing for the United States,” Sullivan told a security conference this spring and repeated when he met with Yang in Zurich last month. Just days before the Glasgow meeting, he demonstrated how his thinking had evolved from his Obama-Biden experience to a more cold-eyed view of China. He oversaw the administration’s decision to end the rights of one of China’s three major state-owned carriers, China Telecom, to do business in the United States, citing national security concerns and precipitating additional complaints from Beijing.  

At the same time, Blinken opened a new front in the U.S.-China ideological confrontation. After Biden spoke, or misspoke, about a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan, Blinken issued a statement last week urging members of the United Nations to support Taiwan’s expanded participation in U.N. affairs, further angering Beijing.

With some exceptions, Biden so far seems to be siding with the tougher line on China advanced by Sullivan and Blinken over Kerry’s climate tradeoff arguments. But, even if Biden decides in their favor for now, Kerry’s continued presence in his high-level position induces China (and other adversaries) to expect him to influence and soften Biden’s posture on non-climate issues. They will factor that expectation into their diplomatic and strategic planning. A former Obama administration official described Kerry’s corrosive role in U.S.-China relations: “China’s diplomacy is a constant search for leverage, and Kerry will deliver a load of it in a wheelbarrow right to their front door every day.” 

Two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) issued a news release titled, “It’s time to fire John Kerry, Biden’s ethically challenged climate czar.” The statement alleged that Kerry and his wife have invested at least $1 million in a Chinese company with connections to the Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang. “Kerry appears to be profiting from slave labor,” Rubio charged. “Now it makes sense why he is actively working against my Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would make it impossible for products made with slave labor in Xinjiang, China, to be imported into the United States. Kerry has been working against my legislation and has convinced President Joe Biden to stay silent on the bill.”

If true, Kerry’s agenda conflicts with Blinken’s endorsement of the Uyghur “genocide” declaration that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made for the Trump administration. The Genocide Convention of 1948 imposes an obligation on state parties to take legal and legislative action to prevent and punish this crime against humanity. Yet, when asked about the Rubio legislation — which passed the Senate unanimously in July — the White House spokesperson responded last month, “We don’t have a position at this point in time.”  

This is not the first time that complaints have been made about the propriety of Kerry’s conduct in the Biden administration. In April, Rubio and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), joined by 17 other Republican senators, sent a letter to Biden raising “grave concerns” about Kerry’s alleged divulging of classified information to Iran: “Secretary Kerry has a long history of employing transactional diplomacy against the best interests of the United States or our allies — often trading long-term national security for a flawed short-term political agenda — which has ultimately endangered our allies and emboldened our adversaries.”

Kerry appears to be working at cross purposes with the chief foreign policy and national security officials in the Biden administration — not only on climate issues and not only on China relations. At some point, as has been true in all recent administrations, the president will have to take control of his own policy and remove obstacles to its effective implementation. Experts differ on whether the danger from climate change will reach its calamitous peak within the next decade or by mid-century, but the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party are here, now, and existential.

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 China Climate change COP26 Dan Sullivan Jake Sullivan Joe Biden John Kerry Marco Rubio Mike Pompeo US-China tensions Xinjiang internment camps

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