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California Governor to Visit China Amid Efforts to Stabilize Bilateral Ties

FILE - Gavin Newsom, governor of the U.S. state of California, shown here speaking in Beverly Hills, California, on May 2, 2023, will begin a weeklong visit to China on Oct. 23.
FILE - Gavin Newsom, governor of the U.S. state of California, shown here speaking in Beverly Hills, California, on May 2, 2023, will begin a weeklong visit to China on Oct. 23.

U.S. state of California Governor Gavin Newsom begins his weeklong visit to China Monday, traveling to six Chinese cities and meeting national and provincial officials to talk about climate policies and potential partnerships.

“California and China hold the keys to solving the climate crisis,” Newsom said in a statement released by his office on October 18. “As two of the world’s largest economies, our partnership is essential to delivering climate action for our communities and beyond.”

Some analysts say Newsom’s trip is a continuation of California’s longstanding tradition of collaborating on climate and environment with China. “The trip is part of the [efforts] to push forward some agreements that have already been signed, sign some new agreements and see if there are things California can learn from China,” said Alex Wang, faculty co-director at the Emmett Institute for Climate Change and Environment at the UCLA School of Law.

Newsom is expected to exchange views about shared efforts to combat climate change with Chinese officials and academics, sign new agreements to deepen climate partnership, and visit Tesla’s factory in Shanghai.

Wang said one thing California can learn from China is how it deploys renewable energy resources and products. “One thing that China has done in areas like clean energy and electric vehicles is deployment,” he told VOA by phone. “What California and the rest of the world need to do is to deploy a lot of the things we already have as fast as possible.”

Newsom’s efforts to resume exchanges with China are built on California’s 15-year-long close relationship with Beijing on trade and climate issues. Compared with his predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, Newsom has limited experience in international affairs.

The trip to China will be his second overseas trip since he became California governor in 2019. Despite his lack of experience in international affairs, Newsom has sought to revive a partnership with China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, while signing a new climate-related deal with the Chinese province of Hainan last year.

Subnational diplomacy with China

Newsom’s trip comes after a number of U.S. cabinet members, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, visited China and conducted high-level meetings with top Chinese officials in recent months. It also takes place as the U.S. and China try to pave the way for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to attend the APEC Leaders Summit in San Francisco next month.

While tension between the U.S. and China remains high at the national level, some experts say the factors that cause the persistent tension won’t be present when the meeting is between two unequal partners.

“When national-level partners in China meet with Newsom, there won’t be the same fraught politics, and when Newsom meets with subnational governments in China, the interactions have always been friendlier even in the darkest moments of U.S.-China state-to-state interactions,” Wang said.

Other analysts say that in Beijing’s view, restarting cooperation and contact with the U.S. at the subnational level may be less risky than doing the same thing at the national level because the chances of those efforts being derailed by the broader tensions in the U.S.-China relationship are smaller.

“California has been much less hawkish on China than many states, and they have continued to engage in low-level cooperation [with China],” Sara Newland, an expert on local politics in China at Smith College, told VOA by phone. “My guess is that China hopes there will be a bit of lower-stake form of engagement during Newsom’s visit.”

Criticism from human rights groups

Prior to the trip, Newsom’s team emphasized that the visit would be “predominantly focused on climate,” which raises skepticism that he will broach sensitive issues such as human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, China’s aggression against Taiwan and provocation in the South China Sea, as well as Beijing’s intellectual property rights.

Dozens of civil society groups and human rights organizations have criticized Newsom’s attempt to avoid touching on sensitive issues that might irk Beijing and urged him to mention human rights violations when he visits Hong Kong and China.

Family members of a 67-year-old Chinese-American pastor, who has been detained in China since 2006 under fraud-related charges, have urged Newsom to help free the Californian during his trip.

Some observers say Newsom’s strictly focused agenda may prove to be counterproductive. “Climate and human rights are intimately linked as human rights [allows] civil society to protest, monitor the government and make sure they implement clean energy pledges,” said Maya Wang, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We don't know why the governor would think that the two things can be separated.”

Potential impact on other states

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic and growing skepticism toward China in the U.S. have stalled bilateral engagement between the two countries in recent years, UCLA’s Wang thinks Newsom could still achieve some positive outcomes through his trip to China.

“He is continuing to build the relationship and having face time,” he said. “A lot of these are simple elements of diplomacy and cooperation, such as sharing ideas, putting things on the agenda and trying to persuade each other of the things they should work on together. These are plausible outcomes of this trip.”

Newland of Smith College said that the outcome of Newsom’s trip could have an impact on governors who may also be contemplating a visit to China. “This trip will be closely watched by other states, and if the trip is seen as successful, it will give ammunition to people who do want to open more channels of communication with China again,” she said.