Nov 2, 2021 - World

The China quandary for U.S. climate policy

Animated illustration of a hand hovering between two buttons, one stylized as the Chinese flag and one stylized as the Earth.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some U.S. progressives say America's China policy is a choice between challenging Beijing's abuses or saving the planet, but some diplomats warn the strategy won't work.

Why it matters: The icy U.S.-China relationship is deepening fears that the world's leaders won't be able to work together to prevent climate catastrophes.

  • China is by far the world's largest carbon emitter today, but the U.S. historically has emitted more carbon and remains among the highest emitters per capita.

Driving the news: World leaders are gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, this week for the UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26. President Joe Biden and climate envoy John Kerry are there; Chinese President Xi Jinping has remained in China, though he provided written remarks.

Background: The Biden administration originally hoped climate cooperation with China could be carried out on a separate, more collaborative track from the rest of U.S.-China relations, and thus insulate it from political and security tensions.

  • In January, Kerry called climate a "critical standalone issue," saying that the U.S. and China needed to find a way to "compartmentalize" climate discussions.
  • “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,” Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier this year.
  • But Beijing has rejected that idea. "U.S.-China climate change cooperation cannot be separated from the larger environment of U.S.-China relations," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a September video call with Kerry, adding the U.S. should "take positive measures to put U.S.-China relations back on track."

What's happening: The idea that the U.S. should prioritize climate cooperation over forcefully addressing Beijing's national security challenges and human rights abuses has also gained traction in some U.S. progressive circles in recent months.

  • The U.S. should not "squander" its limited leverage over China on intractable issues such as China's human rights violations but rather prioritize climate change and technology, Susan Thornton, former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs under Trump, wrote in an Oct. 21 opinion piece for the New York Times.
  • In late October, a group of more than 30 Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to Biden urging climate diplomacy with China, and stating while "the U.S. will not neglect our values and interests" including condemning human rights violations, "this cannot prevent us from exploring potential areas where our nations may be able to reduce tensions and find greater understanding."
  • In July, more than 40 progressive groups sent a letter to Biden demanding an end to "new Cold War" rhetoric and "instead" working with China on climate change.

But there is deep skepticism in the White House and among seasoned diplomats that being gentler with China on human rights will lead to any meaningful concessions on climate.

What they're saying: "The choice between human rights and climate progress is a false choice. As Secretary Kerry has said from the start, the United States and China have mutual interests in solving the climate crisis while there's still time, even when we fundamentally disagree on other critical issues," a State Department spokesperson told Axios.

Diplomats with decades of experience negotiating with Chinese leaders also reject that binary.

  • "This argument that we should ease up on other issues to get their cooperation on climate is pernicious and it would be a terrible mistake," Winston Lord, who accompanied Henry Kissinger on the secret trip to Beijing in 1971 that eventually led to the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic ties, told Axios in an interview.
  • "The fact is that fighting climate change is in China’s national self-interest. They’re going to do it because they need to do it for their own purposes," said Lord, who also served as U.S. ambassador to China under Reagan and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under Clinton.
  • China has seen excessive heat waves and extreme weather in recent years, and Chinese farmers have lost crops.

Danny Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under Obama, warned against what he called Wang Yi's "extortionate strategy."

  • "If you give in to Chinese ultimatums, you are guaranteed to get more of them," Russel said.

Yes, but: Diplomacy still matters.

  • It would be a "catastrophic mistake" to conclude the U.S. shouldn't have any role in working with China's leaders to make more stringent commitments and to keep them, Russel said. And "no one is disputing that it’s easier to work together when tensions are relatively subdued."
  • That is also the White House's view. "Secretary Kerry and his administration colleagues are unanimous in their assessment that China, which accounts for more than a quarter of global emissions, is an essential piece of the climate puzzle," the State Department spokesperson said.
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