Beijing is about to get its third marquee visit from a top U.S. official in the span of a month. But for now, they’re mostly talking for the sake of talking.
President Joe Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry will be in Beijing for four days of meetings starting Sunday — on the heels of recent visits by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. His task: Nudge the Chinese government to honor its commitments to reduce planet-warming methane emissions and “transition away from coal,” Kerry told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing Thursday. The first step to all that: simply restarting stalled climate talks.
While Beijing continues to refuse to renew high-level military communications between the two countries, the visits by high-level officials show that Biden’s predicted “thaw” is happening at least in some areas.
Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping declared meaningful results from Blinken’s trip last month. “The two sides have made progress and reached common understandings on some specific issues, which is very good,” Xi said. Yet Xi gave no details of that progress, and Chinese diplomats say they want more than happy talk from senior U.S. officials. “Communication must also be effective — it should not be for the sake of communication alone or only seeking to address one’s own concerns while neglecting the concerns of the other side,” said Minister Jing Quan at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
Blinken and Yellen returned to Washington with pledges for more high-level diplomatic contact rather than tangible progress on hot-button U.S.-China issues or detailed plans for next steps in bilateral dialogue. “I don’t have anything specific about future process to announce,” Yellen told reporters on Sunday in Beijing at the conclusion of her visit.
GOP lawmakers say the Biden administration is wasting its time. The stream of senior administration officials to Beijing constitutes “zombie engagement with the Chinese Communist Party — all the while the CCP’s malign behavior has gotten worse, not better,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China.
Biden’s envoys have been struggling to restore a measure of predictability to a relationship that has plunged to a 50-year low in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon incident in February. That incident battered a relationship already curdled by tensions over trade, Beijing’s saber-rattling toward Taiwan and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The Biden administration argues that face-to-face dialogue serves a role of its own — decreasing distrust and paving the way for conversations on difficult topics.
“None of this gets solved, resolved with one visit, one trip, one conversation. It’s a process,” Blinken told reporters last month.
Such discussions — however vague —are important at a time when senior U.S. military officials have warned that rising bilateral tensions are pushing the two countries toward possible military conflict within the next four years. Kerry said Thursday that diplomatic engagement with Beijing is necessary to avoid “the potential for mistakes, the potential for something to inadvertently drag us into an open hot conflict.”
But Blinken’s meetings with Xi and other top Chinese officials were hard to sell back in Washington as a success.
The administration has been asking China to take action to curb the role of Chinese chemical exporters in the opioid overdose epidemic. But Blinken’s Chinese hosts only agreed “to explore setting up a working group or joint effort” to cut the flow of Chinese precursor chemicals that Mexican cartels process into fentanyl, Blinken told reporters during his trip.
And while Blinken “repeatedly” raised the U.S. desire to resume high-level military-to-military communications, China continues to balk at doing so. That freeze — which extends to Beijing’s rejections of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s requests to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu — raises the risk of a potential military crisis in the Indo-Pacific.
Blinken’s outreach to Beijing was “weak and desperate” and constituted “pandering to the Chinese Communist Party,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said in a statement last month.
Yellen’s four days in Beijing last week produced upbeat rhetoric but no breakthroughs on the issues roiling the U.S.-China business relationship. The Treasury secretary told reporters ahead of the trip that she planned to discuss “China’s unfair economic practices … barriers to market access for foreign firms and issues involving intellectual property.”
But Beijing showed no movement on those fronts, in part because Yellen didn’t bring any concession on pending U.S. initiatives like restrictions on outbound investment and curbs on Chinese corporate access to U.S. cloud-computing services.
The response in an editorial in the Chinese state news agency Xinhua: “It is unproductive when the United States is posturing for dialogue and communication, while tightening its block and containment against China.”
That meant that Yellen spent most of her time in Beijing “trying to reassure the Chinese of U.S. intent” rather than brainstorming approaches to specific bilateral disputes, said Mary Lovely, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Although Yellen reiterated that the U.S. isn’t trying to decouple from the Chinese economy, the response of her Chinese hosts was likely “Well, show me the money,” Lovely said.
Kerry is hoping he’ll have better luck in his meetings with his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and other senior Chinese officials next week. But Kerry is likely to make little headway in persuading Beijing to reduce its reliance on coal-fired energy production while it struggles to revive its faltering economy.
“I wouldn’t look for breakthroughs … relations between the two governments remain very challenging,” said David Sandalow, a former senior official at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration and founder of the U.S.-China program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
Kerry’s potential advantage: U.S.-China climate cooperation is essential to the success of the year-end U.N. climate conference in Dubai. But Beijing suspended a U.S.-China joint working group on climate cooperation as part of a package of reprisals for then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in August. “It would be substantive progress if Kerry and Xie could come out of their meetings saying ‘we’ve agreed that the working group is going to meet x-number of times between now and Dubai,’” said Joanna Lewis, an associate professor at Georgetown University and an expert on China’s climate policies.
Kerry’s travel plans have reinvigorated GOP skepticism on Capitol Hill.
“Despite the sweet nothings CCP diplomats murmured into climate envoy Kerry’s ear at Davos or COP26, in 2022 China started construction on six times more coal plant capacity than the rest of the world combined,” said the China committee chair Gallagher. China’s environmental record makes it “the number one enemy” on climate issues, rather than a partner, Gallagher said.
Others argued that the focus on climate is all wrong. “Countering China and their malign agenda should be the top priority of the State Department” rather than climate cooperation, said Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Biden administration argues that China’s status as the world’s largest source of carbon emissions makes U.S. efforts to spur climate cooperation with Beijing unavoidable. Refusing to do so “would be malpractice of the worst order — diplomatic and political,” Kerry said.
Democratic lawmakers are holding out for the Biden approach — arguing that talks about talks are how progress starts.
“I reject the notion that diplomacy is an act of weakness,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Select Committee on China. “Communicating is what countries do, especially when the two countries are the most powerful in the world.”
And reestablishing regular and reliable high-level contacts between senior officials may also help pave the way to a much-anticipated face to face encounter between Biden and Xi later this year.
Outreach by Blinken, Yellen and Kerry provides “an essential groundwork for a successful Xi-Biden meeting at APEC in the fall and help prevent the relationship from further deterioration,” said Susan Shirk, former deputy assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration.