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)
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.