China says it will work with US on climate change as long as political conditions are met

Vice President Han Zheng told U.S. climate envoy John Kerry in Beijing that addressing climate change is ‘an important aspect of China-U.S. cooperation’ but is predicated on mutual respect

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Chinese Premier Li Qiang attend a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China
U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Chinese Premier Li Qiang attend a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on July 18, 2023.FLORENCE LO (REUTERS)

China is willing to work with Washington on reducing global warming as long as its political demands are met, the country’s vice president told U.S. climate envoy John Kerry on Wednesday. Vice President Han Zheng told Kerry that addressing climate change was “an important aspect of China-U.S. cooperation,” but was predicated on mutual respect, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. He said it must proceed “on the basis of U.S. attendance to core issues that concern both parties, fully engaging and exchanging ideas.”

Ties between the countries have hit a historic low amid disputes over tariffs, access to technology, human rights, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and threats against self-governing Taiwan.

Kerry said he had “very detailed meetings with a lot to catch up on” during his three days of talks, following China’s suspension of most contacts with President Joe Biden’s administration last August, including over efforts to address global warming.

China was displaying its anger over then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy China claims as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary. Kerry, a former secretary of state and presidential candidate, said there “are a lot of things that we very clearly agreed on after all this time,” but limited his comments at a news conference mainly to climate issues.

Climate “doesn’t wait for these things. It is not something that you can just say, OK stop, while we’re doing something else and we’ll come back to you. It’s going to continue,” Kerry said.

The climate crisis is a universal threat to humankind and we all have a responsibility to deal with it as rapidly as we can,” he said.

Kerry discussed climate issues with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and told China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on Tuesday that the Biden administration is “very committed” to stabilizing relations between the world’s two biggest economies, as the countries seek to restart high-level contacts.

China has chafed at U.S. criticism of its aggressive assertion of its claims in the South China Sea and of rights abuses against Muslim and Buddhist minorities, and at U.S. travel sanctions imposed on officials ranging from the Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong to the country’s defense minister.

Contacts have only slowly been restored and China continues to refuse to restart dialogue between the People’s Liberation Army, the party’s military branch, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Kerry is the third senior Biden administration official to travel in recent weeks to China for meetings with their counterparts following Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

In the latest challenge to bilateral relations, China is criticizing an upcoming stopover in the United States by Taiwan’s vice president and the front-runner in next year’s presidential election, William Lai. On Wednesday, the director of the U.S. de facto embassy in Taiwan, Sandra Oudkirk, said there is “absolutely no reason for (China) to use the transit as a pretext for any sort of provocative action. And we certainly hope that they don’t.”

The U.S. is a key Taiwanese ally but maintains only unofficial relations with the island in deference to Beijing.

China and the U.S. are the world’s two worst climate polluters and dialogue between them after a nearly yearlong hiatus is considered crucial to addressing the threat of higher temperatures and more extreme weather.

The U.S. and China are hoping for further talks on limiting the production of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses before the U.N. COP 28 negotiations to be held in Dubai in November and December, Kerry said.

Still, tensions in the overall relationship were never far from the discussions.

Kerry told Wang he appreciated the opportunity to “change our relationship for the better” and that Biden is “very committed to stability within this relationship and also to achieve efforts together that can make a significant difference to the world.”

Biden “values his relationship with President Xi (Jinping), and I think President Xi values his relationship with President Biden, and I know he looks forward to being able to move forward and change the dynamic,” Kerry said.

Kerry later paid a courtesy call on newly appointed Premier Li Qiang, the party’s second-ranking official, who told him China and the U.S. should cooperate more closely on the “extremely large challenge” posed by global warming.

Kerry responded that “working and showing the rest of the world how we can cooperate and begin to address this with the urgency it requires is incredible.”

He pointed to previous agreements on reducing the output of methane, a major contributor to global warming, as well as transitioning away from coal as a power source and addressing deforestation.

Kerry did not meet with Xi, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang has been absent from public sight for three weeks, with his office offering no information on his whereabouts.

China leads the world in producing and consuming coal and has proceeded with building new plants that add tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually, while also expanding the use of renewables such as solar and wind power.

The country has pledged to level off carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060, while the U.S. and the European Union have urged China to adopt more ambitious reduction targets.

As with the U.S. and Europe, China has seen record stretches of high temperatures this summer that have threatened crops and prompted cities to open Cold War-era bomb shelters to help residents escape the heat.

U.S. lawmakers have faulted China for insisting it is still a developing economy that produces far less pollution per capita and should be exempted from the more stringent climate standards adopted by developed Western economies.

Thom Woodroofe, senior fellow of the Asia Society’s China Climate Hub and a former climate diplomat, said in an email that Kerry’s visit was a “small win for the stabilization of the U.S.-China relationship.”

“The door is clearly open to engage further on climate, and the optics bode well for future rounds of discussion,” Woodroofe said.

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