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John Kerry promises US climate change diplomacy won’t lead to weaker China policy

Many feared the US would make unsavory concessions to China to ensure climate change progress. Kerry says “that’s not going to happen.”

Special envoy for climate John Kerry speaks after being introduced by Joe Biden on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Deleware.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate change issues, just addressed one of the biggest concerns early critics have of the new administration: Whether the White House will make unsavory concessions to China in exchange for progress on climate issues.

In a Wednesday afternoon press briefing to release the administration’s new climate change executive orders, Kerry answered that question definitively: No.

“Obviously we have serious differences with China,” the envoy said during the White House briefing, citing Beijing’s theft of intellectual property and aggression in the South China Sea as examples. “Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That’s not going to happen.”

It’s a pretty big statement, and one that hopefully clarifies an early controversy over the Biden administration’s foreign policy plans.

Climate change is a top Biden priority. So is confronting China.

In December, US foreign policy expert Thomas Wright wrote an article in the Atlantic with a provocative claim: That Kerry would prioritize extracting climate change-related concessions from China, and to do so would minimize America’s plans to push Beijing on trade, security, and human rights issues:

According to three people familiar with Kerry’s thinking, Kerry believes that cooperation with China is the key to progress on climate change and that climate is by far the most important issue in the relationship between the United States and China. Kerry thinks the U.S. president should use his political capital to press Beijing on this subject. Yes, the United States should stand firm when it disagrees with Beijing, as he believes it did during his tenure as secretary of state, but everything else, including geopolitical competition with China, is of secondary importance to this overarching threat.

Kerry’s former aides and others close to him denied that Wright accurately portrayed the former secretary of state’s stance. Still, it led many in Washington, DC’s foreign policy expert community — especially those on the right — to preemptively worry the incoming Biden administration would be softer on China to make climate change progress.

That was a fair concern. The US wants China to stop putting millions of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang camps, cease the intellectual property theft of American business, and quit harassing US allies in regional waters. If the US weakened its pushback on any of these issues so China would agree to lower carbon emissions, for example, many in the US and around the world might not deem that a good trade.

But the climate envoy has now stated such fears are overblown: The Biden administration will seek both to compete with China on myriad issues and work with it to reverse climate change’s effects.

It’s unclear if that approach will work, and the White House could face a future scenario where it would consider trade-offs. Criticism might be warranted then. For now, Kerry is clearly trying to put an end to an early controversy about his own views — and Biden’s foreign policy in general.