Beijing rejects idea of climate as ‘standalone issue’ in U.S.-China relations

Foreign Affairs

China is not eager to appear friendly with the U.S., despite the change of leadership in Washington.

John Kerry giving a briefing as climate envoy for the Biden administration
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

As the Trump administration concluded a marathon run of speeches denouncing Chinese communists and announcements of tough-on-China policies right through to its final days, expectations dimmed that the Biden administration would be able to change much in China relations, at least at first. “Bilateral relations will barely budge,” we wrote in the SupChina 2021 Red Paper, citing three constraining factors on the Biden administration’s side:

  • A bipartisan consensus in Washington that the U.S. approach to China should continue to be more assertive, even though there isn’t agreement on policy details.
  • The experience of incoming Biden officials, who would likely heed advice to reject initial offers of a reset from Beijing. (The White House said earlier this week that it was approaching China, for now, with “strategic patience.”)
  • A new surge in COVID-19 cases and the unprecedented challenge of a nationwide vaccine rollout. 

Of course, Beijing plays a critical part, too, and today, China indicated that it is not at all eager to appear friendly with the U.S., despite the change of leadership in Washington. In today’s Foreign Ministry press briefing (English, Chinese), spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 threw cold water on the idea of U.S.-China cooperation on climate change: 

China is ready to cooperate with the United States and the international community on climate change.

That said, I’d like to stress that China-U.S. cooperation in specific areas, unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill, is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole. China has emphasized time and again that no one should imagine they could ask China to understand and support them in bilateral and global affairs when they blatantly interfere in China’s domestic affairs and undermine China’s interests. We hope the United States can create favorable conditions for coordination and cooperation with China in major areas.

In other words, China disagrees with President Biden’s special climate envoy John Kerry, who suggested yesterday that climate change should be a “standalone issue” in U.S.-China relations. 

“U.S. can’t partner [with], confront China at the same time” is how nationalistic state media tabloid the Global Times put it in a piece today, citing comments from Zhao, other senior officials, and Chinese academics. 

Other early friction areas in the Biden-Xi era of U.S.-China relations include:

  • Taiwan: After the U.S. criticized Beijing for sending warplanes into the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese defense ministry made what Reuters called an unusually “overt, verbal [threat] of conflict,” by warning, “‘Taiwan independence’ means war.”
  • South China Sea: Blinken had a call with Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin yesterday, and said that the U.S. will “stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure.” 
  • East China Sea: A call between President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga today was “the third time in a week” that the U.S. has affirmed its support for Japan’s claims to what it calls the Senkaku Islands, but that China claims as Diaoyu Dao. 

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