Analysts are portraying this week’s visit to China by U.S. presidential envoy John Kerry as a diplomatic embarrassment, with Chinese leaders giving no ground on Kerry’s appeal for cooperation on climate change and offering him only video meetings with senior officials.
“The Taliban got a better reception” when a delegation from the Afghan insurgent group met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on July 28, noted Anders Corr, a longtime China observer and publisher of the Journal of Political Risk.
The chilly treatment of Kerry reflects how much an increasingly assertive China’s approach to Washington has changed in just a few months.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s appointment of Kerry, a former secretary of state and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a special envoy for climate issues was initially greeted in China as an opportunity in which to engage with a new U.S. administration. Under Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump, U.S. policies toward Beijing were seen by some as overly hawkish, and by others as rightfully assertive.
“The climate issue could be our new ping pong diplomacy,” hopefully suggested an article in the Global Times, a branch of China’s state media conglomerate.
The constructive attitude continued during Kerry’s initial visit to Shanghai in April, which concluded with a joint statement listing several concrete steps to reduce carbon emissions and pledges of cooperation between the sides “to tackle the climate crisis.”
But any goodwill apparent at that time had dissipated amid mounting competition for global influence and what some see as Beijing’s growing arrogance following America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan by the time Kerry arrived in Tianjin – a seaport city east of Beijing – for his latest meetings this week.
Senior officials, including Wang, Vice Premier Han Zheng and Yang Jiechi, the state councilor in charge of foreign affairs, met with Kerry only by video conference while a relatively junior climate negotiator was dispatched to Tianjin for face-to-face talks.
The treatment amounted to “a diplomatic snub,” Corr said, comparing it to widely circulated photographs of Taliban political commission leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar meeting in person with Wang just weeks before. “Not to mention the drab photo backdrop, video calls from principals, and public lecturing [by the Chinese side].”
The whole affair is a “joke” at the U.S.’ expense, Corr said, adding the Chinese Communist Party “is laughing its [expletive] off. You can quote me on that.”
Clash on climate issue
If the optics were an embarrassment for Kerry, the substance of the meetings did not go any better. During his video call with the American envoy, Wang lectured Kerry and rejected his argument that the climate issue is so important that it should transcend politics.
Kerry told reporters after his meetings that the talks had been “very constructive” and that he had been “very direct” in telling the Chinese that their construction of new coal plants was hindering global efforts to deal with climate change.
He also said he had urged his interlocutors not to let other stresses in the relationship between the world’s biggest economies to stand in the way of cooperation on what he called the “climate crisis.”
However, China’s foreign ministry reported that Wang told Kerry that Washington was guilty of a "major strategic miscalculation toward China" and that the climate issue could not be decoupled from other diplomatic issues.
“What China is saying is that they have no intention to collaborate with the U.S. on climate issues if they don’t get what they want,” said June Teufel Dreyer, professor of political science at the University of Miami, in a phone interview on Friday.
What Beijing wants, Dreyer said, is concessions with regard to Taiwan, the South China Sea, freedom of navigation and a host of other issues. But she does not think the Biden administration is in a position to give ground on any of those areas.
She noted that sagging poll ratings after the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan and bipartisan demands in Washington for a tough approach to China have limited the administration’s options in the run-up to critical congressional elections next year.
“2022 is just around the corner,” she said. The Biden administration and the Democratic Party “can’t afford” another foreign policy setback.
Dreyer said she doesn’t know what Kerry’s objectives were in Tianjin, but he seems to have come home empty-handed.
“As a taxpayer, if there’s no result, I don’t see why U.S. officials have to go on these trips; it costs a lot of money,” she said. “And if the Chinese side used the occasion to humiliate America, that’s doubly bad.”