Biden sends unofficial delegation to Taiwan as John Kerry talks climate in Shanghai

Foreign Affairs

Is Beijing willing to treat climate change as a “standalone issue” in relations with the U.S., as climate envoy John Kerry has advocated? We may soon find out, after Biden sent Kerry to Shanghai and an unofficial delegation to Taiwan at the same time.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

A delegation of former U.S. government officials, including a senator and two deputy secretaries of state, arrived in Taiwan today, Focus Taiwan reports.

  • Former American officials visiting Taiwan is not unordinary, but this visit is meant to be a “personal signal” of President Biden’s “commitment to Taiwan and its democracy,” according to an unnamed White House official quoted in Reuters.

At the same time, Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, is in Shanghai for three days of talks. The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that Kerry would meet with his longtime negotiating counterpart, Xiè Zhènhuá 解振华 — a positive signal, given the warm relationship between the two.

  • Before Kerry traveled to press China to reduce carbon emissions more quickly, he told the Wall Street Journal that he was seeking new mechanisms to build accountability into climate pledges.
  • One mechanism he indicated he would explore in negotiations is using the tools of Climate Trace, an Al Gore-backed organization that uses “artificial intelligence, satellite image processing, machine learning, and other remote sensing technologies” to track global greenhouse gas output.
  • Another mechanism that he said the U.S. is not interested in, but the EU has proposed, is a “border-adjustment tax on imports based on their emissions.”

Will Beijing treat climate as a “standalone issue”?

Though the U.S. and China have inched forward on climate talks in the months since Biden took office, and Kerry’s visit is a new landmark on that path, Beijing remains wary of appearing deferential to Washington in any way.

  • After Kerry suggested in late January that climate should be a “standalone issue” in bilateral relations, China threw cold water on the idea, insisting that “China-U.S. cooperation in specific areas…is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole.”
  • From Beijing’s point of view, the Biden administration has a responsibility to ease up on a series of major anti-China moves from the Trump administration before relations can improve — see SupChina’s summary of the rancorous Alaska talks last month for more.

Taiwan is also an issue where Beijing sees a shifting status quo. The Biden administration has recently formalized more permissive “contact guidelines” between U.S. and Taiwanese officials, after the Trump administration abolished them with no guidance on next steps in early January. And many in Washington are eager for the U.S. to even more unambiguously ally with Taiwan, a step that Beijing would likely consider to be crossing a red line.

  • As the U.S. works to boost Taiwanese confidence, Beijing is attempting to undermine it: China has stepped up its military presence and sabre rattling around Taiwan, sending a record number of warplanes into the island’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) two days ago, and making Top Gun-style mashups of nationalistic soundbites condeming “evil Taiwan separatists.”
  • Taiwan and China both recently announced they will hold live fire drills in the atmosphere of heightened tensions.
  • The U.S. is pressing Japan to “issue a joint statement of support for Taiwan” when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visits Washington on April 16, the FT reports.

Beijing probably doesn’t think that “bilateral relations as a whole” are getting much better, if at all. So if that is true, will the Chinese government stick with its line from January and refuse to cooperate on climate policy, or will Kerry’s negotiating — or some other factor — change Beijing’s calculus toward treating climate cooperation as a standalone goal?