Climate Change Cooperation Cannot be an “Oasis” in U.S.-China Relations

Peace Advocate September / October 2021

"Smog" by Astro_Alex is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Michael Klare

President Biden’s special envoy on climate change, former Secretary of State John Kerry, traveled to Tianjin, China on August. 31 and Sept. 1 to meet with Chinese officials on joint efforts to slow the pace of global warming. While in Tianjin, Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and spoke by videoconference with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Both sides reported that the talks produced agreement on some issues but also strayed into larger themes in U.S.-China relations, where discord prevailed.

According to the Chinese Embassy’s official “readout” of the Wang-Kerry conversation, held on Sept. 1, Wang told Kerry that “China-U.S. cooperation on climate change not only serves the interests of both sides, but also benefits all mankind.” Kerry, in remarks to reporters that same day, said that he’d had constructive talks with his Chinese counterparts, and announced that he would meet with Xie once again prior to the UN’s Glasgow Climate Change Conference in early November.

However, aside from these few positive comments, the exchanges between Kerry and Chinese officials were largely rancorous. Wang insisted that while cooperation on climate change was important, it could not be separated from the larger fabric of U.S.-China relations, which, he said, were in sharp decline. “In recent years,” he said, “China-U.S. relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse and are facing serious difficulties” – a trend he attributed to increased U.S. hostility toward China. “The United States should stop viewing China as a threat and rival, and cease containing and suppressing China all over the world.”

Given the downturn in U.S.-China relations and continued U.S. hostility toward China, cooperation on climate change will be hard to achieve, Wang told Kerry. “China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations,” he asserted. “The U.S. side wants the climate change cooperation to be an ‘oasis’ of China-U.S. relations. However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the ‘oasis’ will be desertified.”

Kerry, for his part, chastised the Chinese leadership for interjecting other issues into the discussion on climate and criticized China for its continuing reliance on coal. “My response to them,” he told reporters, “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.’”

Kerry also said he told Chinese leaders that preventing warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average – the point at which scientists say the effects of climate change will be catastrophic and irreversible – will require a dramatic turnaround in China’s consumption of coal, the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels.

Speaking of China’s current energy plans, Kerry said he told Chinese leaders, “adding some 200-plus gigawatts of coal over the last five years, and now another 200 or so coming online in the planning stage, if it went to fruition would actually undo the ability of the rest of the world to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees.”

It would appear, then, that the Biden administration’s effort to promote cooperation with China on climate change is being undermined by its insistence on criticizing China on multiple fronts – human rights, trade, military behavior, coal use, and so on – while also increasing military pressure on the Chinese in the western Pacific. (See the “Provocative Maneuvers” option on the Sane Committee website.) While Kerry and Xie may pull off a face-saving encounter on the eve of the Glasgow meeting, the U.S. and China will not attend that pivotal event as a unified force – dashing hopes for a successful outcome to the conference.

 The “Two Lists” and “Three Bottom Lines”

 In his comments to Kerry, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that any improvement in U.S.-China relations – whether on climate change or any other issue – will require that Washington “attach importance to and actively respond to the “two lists” and “three bottom lines” put forward by China. Wang did not explain what he meant by this, but avid China watchers understood that he was referring to instructions provided to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during her visit to China on July 25 and 26, 2021. As these “lists” and “lines” have now become a staple in formal Chinese statements, it is useful to identify them here.

 According to the official Chinese Ministry readout of Wang’s conversation with Sherman, the three “bottom lines” are as follows:

 * “First, the United States must not challenge, slander or even attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Presumably, this means no attempts by the U.S. to weaken or interfere with the absolute rule of the Chinese Communist Party of China (CPC).

 * “Second, the United States must not attempt to obstruct or even interrupt China’s development process…. China urges the United States to remove all unilateral sanctions, high tariffs, long-arm jurisdiction and technology blockade it has imposed on China as soon as possible.”

 * “Third, the United States must not infringe upon China’s state sovereignty, or even damage China’s territorial integrity,” especially with regard to Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Moreover, the U.S. must acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China and that Beijing has every right to use force to crush efforts by the Taiwanese to seek full independence from the mainland – without U.S. interference.

 As for the “two lists,” these were contained in a memo delivered to Sherman by Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng during her July 25-26 visit to China. Although the instructions were not made public, a summary was provided by Xinhua, the state news agency.

 “In the ‘List of U.S. Wrongdoings that Must Stop,’” Xinhua reported, “China urged the United States to unconditionally revoke the visa restrictions over CPC members and their families, revoke sanctions on Chinese leaders, officials and government agencies, and remove visa restrictions on Chinese students. China also urged the United States to stop suppressing Chinese enterprises, stop harassing Chinese students, stop suppressing the Confucius Institutes, revoke the registration of Chinese media outlets as ‘foreign agents’ or ‘foreign missions,’ and revoke the extradition request for Meng Wanzhou.”

 (Confucius Institutes are cultural and educational centers abroad affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education; Meng Wanzhou is a senior official of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei being held in Canada pending extradition to the U.S. on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran.)

 Xie also presented Sherman with a “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With,” presumably with specific names attached. According to Xinhua, these included “some Chinese students’ visa applications being rejected, Chinese citizens receiving unfair treatment in the United States, Chinese diplomatic and consular missions being harassed and rammed into by perpetrators in the United States, growing anti-Asian and anti-China sentiment, and Chinese citizens suffering violent attacks.”

 As yet, the Biden administration has not commented formally on the “two lists” or “three bottom lines.” On some of them – Taiwan, Xinjiang, technology restrictions, the Meng Wanzhou case – it appear prepared to ignore Chinese concerns and proceed as if they did not exist. Under these circumstances, any improvement in U.S.-China relations – on climate change or any other matter – appears highly unlikely.

 — Michael Klare is a Co-Founder of the Committee for a Sane US-China Policy.