John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, was addressing one of the biggest problems early critics of the new administration face: whether the White House will make unsavory concessions to China in order to make progress on climate change.
At a Wednesday afternoon press conference on the release of the government’s new executive orders on climate change, Kerry finally answered that question: No.
“Obviously we are very different from China,” said the envoy during the White House briefing, citing Beijing’s intellectual property theft and aggression in the South China Sea as examples. “These issues are never traded for anything that has to do with the climate. That will not happen.”
It’s a pretty big statement that hopefully illustrates an early controversy over the Biden government’s foreign policy plans.
Climate change is Biden’s top priority. So confronts China.
In December, US foreign policy expert Thomas Wright wrote an article in the Atlantic with a provocative claim: Kerry would prioritize securing climate change concessions from China, thereby minimizing America’s plans to advance Beijing on trade, security and human rights issues :
According to three people familiar with Kerry’s thinking, Kerry believes that working with China is key to progressing on climate change, and that climate is by far the most important issue in US-China relations. Kerry says the US president should use his political capital to push Beijing on this issue. Yes, the United States should stand firm if it disagrees with Beijing, as he believed it did during his tenure as Secretary of State, but everything else, including geopolitical competition with China, is of minor importance to this overarching threat.
Kerry’s former aides and others close to him have denied that Wright was an accurate representation of the former Secretary of State. Still, it made many in Washington, DC’s community of foreign policy experts – especially those on the right-wing – preemptively feared that the future Biden administration would be softer on China in order to make progress on climate change.
That was a fair cause. The US wants China to stop moving millions of Uyghur Muslims to camps in Xinjiang, stop stealing American business through intellectual property, and stop harassing US allies in regional waters. If the US were to tone down its recoil on any of these issues, such as China agreeing to cut carbon emissions, many in the US and around the world might not consider it a good trade.
But the Climate Envoy has now said that such fears have been overcome: the Biden government will seek to compete with China on a myriad of issues and work with it to reverse the effects of climate change.
It is unclear whether this approach will work, and the White House may face a future scenario in which compromise is considered. Criticism could then be appropriate. Right now, Kerry is clearly trying to put an end to an early controversy over his own views – and Biden’s foreign policy in general -.
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