Joe Biden cabinet: John Kerry as climate tsar ‘may cool US-China tensions’

Keegan Elmer
·4-min read

John Kerry’s appointment as US climate envoy and Washington’s expected pivot on climate change policy could help find common ground with Beijing under president-elect Joe Biden, Chinese foreign policy observers said.

The return of former secretary of state Kerry to a cabinet-level role was an early sign of the Biden administration setting a more predictable course for its dealings with China, some argued. However, one said renewed engagement by a more multilateral Washington could bring it into conflict with Beijing over who should lead on certain issues globally.

Even if US-China tensions were to remain over economic, technological and other issues, having familiar faces from past administrations could stabilise relations after four tumultuous years under President Donald Trump, they said.

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Kerry’s appointment was one of six National Security Council positions filled on Monday. They also included Antony Blinken being picked for secretary of state when Biden takes office in January.

“Kerry is seen as a very experienced official, with a good knowledge of China, and having him as climate ambassador brings new opportunities for Sino-US cooperation,” Tao Wenzhao, a US-China relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

Both Kerry and Blinken served under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Kerry made annual trips to China as secretary of state between 2013 and 2017.

In 2015, Kerry said China and the US had “cooperated quite extraordinarily” on climate change during his meetings with China’s then foreign minister Yang Jiechi in Washington, despite disagreements over security issues including Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea.

And in the autumn of 2018, after Trump had initiated a trade war with Beijing, Kerry said China “[does] not react well to bludgeoning”.

It was Kerry who signed on behalf of the United States as 171 nations sealed 2016’s historic Paris climate accord – from which Trump announced his country’s withdrawal the following year. Biden has vowed to rejoin the accord on the first day of his presidency.

“The Trump administration has done a lot to undo what Kerry did as secretary of state on climate change and other multilateral issues of agreement like the Iran nuclear deal – which will give Kerry and Blinken a lot of work to do,” Tao said.

“I don’t believe the Kerry appointment will bring the US back to the way things were before. The US will have room to renegotiate on any number of things it may rejoin, from climate change to the Iran nuclear deal to the World Health Organization.”

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Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged in September his country would be carbon-neutral by 2060. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the pledge would be a “game-changer” if China turned words into actions.

“The Kerry appointment demonstrates a typical liberal priority from the Democrats on climate issues, highlighted by placing such a high-level diplomat in the job,” Yu Wanli, a Beijing-based international security analyst, said.

Bringing back Washington policy veterans would aid interactions between the two countries, Yu predicted.

“The appointment of Kerry and other familiar faces definitely makes things much more predictable for China, but also the whole world,” he said.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, warned that the US-China relationship might still be overshadowed by deepening competition regardless of who occupied senior positions in Washington.

“While some economic and diplomatic issues may be mitigated by bringing in more predictable politicians, I expect that technological and general strategic and ideological rivalry will continue,” he said.

“Even though the Democratic administration and China may agree on climate change, both countries will want to take global leadership roles on the issue, and may easily fall into ideological competition.”

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