Climate Diplomacy or Climate ‘Politrick’

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS, and Associate Professor, Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, JNU

Special series on US-China Climate Diplomacy (2 of 2)

  Image: Earth Day Summit 2021               
 Source: firstpost.com

Summary

Earlier on, climate skeptics had wondered if President Biden’s January 27 Executive Order on “climate crisis” was “climate politrick?” Now, scholars in China have likened the US climate envoy’s hurried China visit last week to “a weasel calling on a friendly New Year visit to a chicken” – or a visit with evil intentions. Some overenthusiastic critics of the US in Beijing are even warning President Xi to not login for the online Earth Summit in Washington this week.

People in China believe a snake and a wolf must never be rescued. The belief comes from a popular idiom: the Zhongshan wolf or “The Wise Old Man and the Wolf.” In a few words, the essence of the popular Chinese adage is well-captured in the following sentence: a popular fairy tale about the ingratitude of a creature after being saved. Last year, the idiom entered China’s foreign policy discourse as several IR commentators employed it to describe “ingratitude” of the Trump-led America towards the Peoples’ Republic. Following the ascent of President Biden in the White House, the Chinese commentariat quickly course-corrected itself, i.e. neither Trump nor Biden, it is the US bipartisan anti-China consensus which is the real “wicked wolf.”

Just like the curt and bland statement issued by China’s foreign ministry acknowledging China will host the US climate envoy Kerry for three days in Shanghai, 14-17 April, China released on last Sunday the text of the joint China-US statement following Kerry’s departure on Saturday. The statement said: “The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and also with other foreign governments to tackle the climate crisis which must be addressed with seriousness and urgency it demands.” Interestingly, or rather conspicuously, the statement neither indicated nor was followed by another press release regarding whether China will be represented at the upcoming crucial 40-nation Earth Summit being hosted by President Biden.

Image: Earth Day Summit 2021               
 Source: firstpost.com

While it is true a few Chinese scholars and think tanks have welcomed the worlds’ two largest carbon emitting nations to come forward to cooperate with each other upholding the spirit of the Paris climate agreement. What is perhaps unprecedented and more significant is the warning to President Xi by a section of China’s leftist intelligentsia to beware of Biden’s “climate politrick.”

Talking of those who welcomed Xi-Biden climate cooperation initiative – the first sign of bilateral cooperation since the Trump interregnum, Zhang Jianyu, chief representative and vice president of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund’s China Program, reacted positively and said: “The fact that the joint statement has been signed, means that both Beijing and Washington believe in climate change. We are hoping both China and the US take bold actions.” Li Shuo, senior climate adviser for the environmental group Greenpeace, said China could soon respond to a new U.S. pledge with one of its own, building on the “momentum” of the Shanghai talks. “The statement in my view is as positive as the politics would allow: It sends a very unequivocal message that on this particular issue (China and the United States) will cooperate. Before the meetings in Shanghai this was not a message that we could assume,” Li added. 

 

In contrast, an article in Utopia, one of the influential “anti-US” platforms for ideological debate in China, cautioned China’s top leadership while questioning Biden’s credentials to host the Earth Summit. The pro-Mao, leftist online intellectual discourse forum advocates Maoist and communist ideology. In a signed article on the forum’s website last Saturday – the day John Kerry concluded his 3-day stay in Shanghai and left for Seoul, a commentator using strong words not only “condemned” Joe Biden for his “arrogant” and “hypocritical” foreign policy thinking, but also urged the Chinese leadership to thwart Washington’s attempt to regain the US leadership by holding the Earth Summit beginning Thursday. The article was entitled: “China must resist and fight back hypocrite Biden.”   

  Image: Biden and Kerry at Earth Day Summit   
  Source: firstpost.com

In fact, as early as in November last year, within days of the presidential voting, a section of scholars in China were writing “the election of Biden may or may not turn out to be a turning point for easing Sino-US frictions…with Biden in power, the nature of Sino-US relations will not see a fundamental change, but the mode of confrontation will be relatively soft and the direction of negotiations will be more predictable.” However, with each passing day since taking office, President Biden’s China policy has consistently been predictable in only one direction – in enduring the Trump legacy. The most recent manifestation of which was on display at the testy diplomatic summit last month in Anchorage where senior officials from the two countries “traded sharply critical assessment” of each other’s policies.

Another Chinese commentary has highlighted six ideological “attacks” the US has carried out against China in the international arena under Trump and Biden administrations respectively. First is the classic example of the US-Japan nexus in politicizing and turning on its head the Chinese opposition to Japan’s decision to release radioactive contaminated water from Fukushima into the sea; second is the Western governments and media carrying out slanderous campaign of China’s “economic colonialism” in Africa; third, as soon as China succeeded in containing fight against COVID-19 last year in May and started offering humanitarian assistance abroad, the US-led started defaming and discrediting China by launching “mask diplomacy” campaign against Beijing; fourth, just like vicious propaganda maligning China’s economic assistance to Africa and China’s humanitarian aid by free supply of PPE and masks, the US launched “vaccine diplomacy” campaign to vilify China; the fifth is attacking China using the virus trajectory and accusing China of developing COVID-19 virus and exporting it from chemical laboratory in Wuhan; the sixth and the latest anti-China “false” propaganda is the “genocide” in Xinjiang. Unlike the genuine human rights violation by Japan to release the contaminated water into the sea, the false propaganda against China is aimed at creating anti-China world public opinion, creating social unrest and turbulence in China and ultimately achieving their goal of destroying China, the article stated.   

Finally, it is not incorrect to view President Xi’s highly charged remarks made at two most recent international events respectively in the context of strongly-worded articles published in Utopia and other left-leaning online websites in the past few days. Two days prior to the arrival of Kerry in China, President Xi, according to the Xinhua news agency, warned the US in his speech at the China-Germany-France trilateral video conference on climate change: “Climate change could be used as a tool to disparage some countries for not doing enough.” Then two days prior to the Earth Summit, Xi apparently reiterated his stern warning to President Biden: “We must not let the rules set by one or a few countries be imposed on others, or allow unilateralism pursued by certain countries to set the pace for the whole world.” The remarks by Xi were made at China’s annual Boao Asia Forum on Tuesday.    


  Source: globaltimes.cn

                                     

China’s semi-official “independent” English language CX Daily interpreted Xi’s above remarks as “veiled swipe at the new US administration under Biden” that has been busy forming alliances challenging China over issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Of late, mainstream media in China has been accusing Biden of not only carrying on and enduring the Trump legacy in relentlessly “attacking” China, but also that Biden has gone far beyond Trump in insulting and condescending Beijing. In fact, the Utopia commentary uses another Chinese idiom “externally strong, empty inside” to caricature Biden’s personality. It cites two recent incidents to establish how weak and hollow is President Biden, i.e. the US-China talks in Alaska and Putin’s resolve to dare the US in the Black Sea – in both instances, Biden simply caved in after he was challenged, the commentary observed. “On Iran nuclear deal issue too we saw Biden acting in the same surreptitious and crude manner. He [Biden] is typical treacherous man,” the Utopia commentary continued its verbiage.

Some Chinese scholars, therefore, have welcomed Xi’s remarks as clear rebuff to what the mainstream Western media, in particular the Wall Street Journal has been spreading, i.e. “Xi would participate in the US-initiated climate summit later this week.” These scholars are invoking yet another ancient Chinese proverb “Mouth honey belly sword” or Koumifujian in Chinese. The idiom is used as a metaphor for describing someone extremely sweet on the outside but actually shrewd, cunning and sinister. Most Chinese IR commentators are telling us, the idiom is a perfect description of Biden. 

The article was first published as “Is the Washington Initiated Climate Summit a Biden ‘Politrick’” in Modern Diplomacy on 22 April 2021.

Climate Envoy Kerry in Shanghai to ‘Woo Xi’ to Attend Biden’s Climate Summit

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS, and Associate Professor, Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, JNU

Special series on US-China Climate Diplomacy (1 of 2)

Image: Weasel calling on
chicken
 Source: thebeijinger.com

Summary

A section in the international press claims the US climate envoy John Kerry’s mid-week Shanghai visit was aimed at the White House “wooing Beijing” before the upcoming Earth Summit on April 22. But some foreign commentators while not disagreeing see Kerry’s task as arduous. Then there are those who no doubt believe the visit to be an essential part of Biden’s “climate diplomacy” and as a “bright spot” in tension-ridden China-US relations. Not unexpectedly, Beijing has mandated Xie Zhenhua, China’s “environment man” and Kerry’s old buddy, to go by the script and stick to protocols while hosting his US visitor.

                                                                          ***

On April 13, the US State Department website claimed, the President’s special climate envoy John Kerry will be visiting Shanghai and Seoul from April 14 -17. The agenda for the visit was mentioned as to conduct consultations on global climate crisis. Seasoned diplomatic affairs commentators in Beijing sensed something odd in the sudden state department announcement. Li Guangman, a veteran IR analyst and widely respected “influencer” in the arena of foreign policy opined: “The fact that the news was released only after Kerry departed for Shanghai is an indication it was perhaps only a last-minute decision in Beijing to host Kerry. This also shows Beijing could have declined the visit too.”

  Image:  Kerry in Shanghai             
Source: moderndiplomacy.eu

As regards on the purpose of Kerry visit, a section of the international press has been fed, i.e. the visit is “seen as a chance to set aside existing political tensions and focus on areas of potential climate collaboration.” Highlighting Kerry as the first high-level Biden administration official to fly into China – though not into the capital city Beijing, the US as well as Western media took particular notice of the visit’s timing, that is, just days ahead of Joe Biden’s virtual summit with world leaders on climate change on 22 April. It was on expected lines that the foreign media did not fail to mention the failure of the first top officials-level dialogue in Alaska exactly a month ago in “yielding a breakthrough,” when speculating whether Kerry’s travel to China would be any different.     

In sharp contrast, Beijing’s foreign ministry mandarins did not seem particularly enthused by the visit. Without either referring to the upcoming virtual Earth Summit or attaching extraordinary attention to the first trip to China from the highest official in the Biden government since 20 January, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment disclosed on Wednesday: “The U.S. president’s special climate envoy John Kerry will visit China from Wednesday to Saturday.” In a rather curt and short press release, the foreign ministry in Beijing said: “China’s special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, will meet with his U.S. counterpart John Kerry in Shanghai this week and exchange views on a key United Nations climate conference or COP26 at Glasgow later this year.” 

Beijing Downplays Kerry’s Visit

Besides downplaying the high-profile maiden trip to China by Kerry as the US climate envoy, a lot is being read into Beijing keeping the US visitor strictly within “visiting one city, meeting one official” limits. China’s English language Caixin Daily has confirmed “after talks in China, Kerry will travel on to Seoul, South Korea. The US Embassy in Beijing said no media events are planned before Kerry heads to Seoul.” Remember, John Kerry has been flying around the world with twin purposes, namely: one, to urge various countries to commit themselves to fight against climate change in time for the Washington initiated Earth Summit beginning on Thursday; second, starting from the Earth Summit and before the UN conference on climate in November this year, reclaim America as a leader on climate action.

  Image: China’s ‘climate man’ Xie Zhenhua    
 Source: chinadaily.com.cn

One of the key stated agendas of Kerry’s visit was to seek China’s endorsement to Biden’s ambitious plan to prod countries to step up their respective carbon emissions reduction goal in order to limit planetary warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius – a goal set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. Biden has invited nearly 40 world leaders to assemble for the Earth Summit, including China’s President Xi Jinping and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. To help Biden achieve climate change mission, Kerry has already visited several countries including UK, India, Bangladesh and United Arab Emirates. However, not only China, there are many other countries and individuals/institutions who do not trust the US to fulfill its own climate change commitments. A Bloomberg report last Friday has observed: “Before the U.S. can lead, however, it will first have to overcome the world’s mistrust. After all, the country has reneged on its climate promises before.”

A former Obama administration official, Pete Ogden currently serving as vice president for energy, climate and environment at the United Nations Foundation, was cited in the Bloomberg report mentioned above as saying: “They’ve [the White House] clearly been looking to try to encourage other countries to also increase their ambition, but I don’t think this is the date. I do not expect that everything will be on a glide path to 1.5 degrees after the [Earth] summit.” While Kerry and Biden most likely are going to fail in cajoling major emitter countries barring a few close US allies such as Canada, Japan and maybe South Africa as it [Washington] must first “overcome the world’s mistrust.” India and Brazil, notably, have already indicated the two countries strongly differ with the US-led developed countries’ offered solution at the coming Earth Summit.

China or Xi Jinping might skip the earth Summit

Kerry’s “mission Shanghai” may not have been as “fiery” as the Alaska talks, yet one is certain it must have been equally, if not less, testy visit. According to a Chinese article, both the timing and agenda of Kerry’s “mission Shanghai” are seen as problematic in Beijing for following few reasons. First, as pointed out above, Beijing no doubt views both Biden’s promised commitment to Paris Climate Accord and inviting world leaders to the Earth Summit as mere attempts to salvage the damaged US image on one hand, and to establish the United States as the leader in the global fight against global warming on the other. In other words, it is Biden’s political and not climate change agenda.

  Image: Climate crusader friends     
  Source: thewirechina.com

Second, just like on the eve of the Alaska talks the secretary of state Blinken made provocative statements in Tokyo and Seoul making Beijing unhappy. This time round too Washington initiated not one but two highly provocative moves to gauge the mood in Beijing: one, just as climate envoy Kerry was packing bags for Beijing, the Biden administration dispatched three former US officials with high credentials to Taiwan in an unmarked private jet last Wednesday; two, the US intelligence chief Avril Haines in a report released on last Wednesday has repeated the China threat to the US saying: “There is no other country that represents a more severe threat to our [the US] economic security, innovation and ideas than China, a threat which is deep, wide and persistent.” It is ridiculous to expect Beijing to promise “tangibles” to Kerry in this backdrop, observed a scholar in Beijing.

Third, while officially the PRC government strongly objected to and challenged the Biden-Suga joint statement at the end of the two leaders’ first in-person meeting at the White House last Friday. Typically, reactions from China’s strategic and security affairs community have been far more bellicose and scathing on the mention of Taiwan in the US-Japan joint statement. The last such mention in their joint statement was made in 1969 during Nixon-Sato talks. Disdainfully rejecting any claims that the timing of Kerry’s visit overlapping with Biden-Suga jointly plotting against China as “mere coincidence,” a Chinese commentator seriously wondered if this was “how the US wants to improve relations” with China?

    Image: Xi to attend Biden’s Earth Summit 2021   
  Source: kyivpost.com

Finally, no doubt President Biden has been consistent during the presidential campaign last year and since he took office in January this year, that “effectively tackling climate change requires cooperation with China.” But in response to Blinken and Kerry persistently seeking China’s support and cooperation on global warming, a recent statement by the foreign ministry spokesperson in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, should leave no one under any illusion why Beijing is not going to oblige Washington. “The cooperation between China and the US in certain areas such as climate change is not a flower in a greenhouse, and is bound to be closely related to all pervasive bilateral relationship,” (emphasis added) Zhao Lijian had stated.   

 Image: Biden opens Climate Summit   
   Source: people.com

No wonder, Beijing has been questioning the Biden administration’s credentials, or in other words, the US “eligibility” in seeking China’s cooperation on the so-called “areas of convergence.” It seems Beijing has seen through Biden’s “climate diplomacy” trickery. Why else ancient Chinese idiom “a weasel paying a New Year call to a chicken” – someone with evil intentions – is being invoked by scholars to describe Kerry’s “mission Shanghai?”    

The article was first published as “Kerry’s China Visit: ‘A Weasel Paying a New Year Call to a Chicken”  in Modern Diplomacy on 19 April, 2021.