Assessing Special Envoy Kerry’s Visit to China

Special Climate Envoy John Kerry’s visit to Beijing ended on July 19 after three days of talks with Chinese officials. This comes after months of worsening relations between the two countries and no visible progress on climate since China suspended climate talks in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August. Kerry’s visit follows that of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to improve dip­lomatic relations with Beijing. The current uptick in diplomatic activity may pave the way for another meeting this fall at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit, which will be held in San Francisco—something Kerry mentioned he hopes will happen.

Q1: Why was Kerry in Beijing?

A1: Kerry visited Beijing in his official capacity as special envoy for climate to revive climate talks with the Chinese government. The visit has a double objective: to enhance overall diplomatic exchanges between the two countries and find ways to achieve progress on climate cooperation. While there, he met with Premier Li Qiang, Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi, and Vice President Han Zheng, and held protracted negotiations with his counterpart, Special Envoy for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua.

Cooperation on climate change between China and the United States has been Kerry’s main focus during his tenure as special envoy. China and the United States are the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions but have struggled to find constructive areas for cooperation in recent years. One of the stated goals for the visit is to ensure that the next UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, which will be held in November is a success. The vagueness of the State Department statement highlights how challenging it has become for negotiators to insulate climate talks from the broader challenges in the relationship.

Q2: What is the state of climate cooperation between China and the United States?

A2: Dialogue between the United States and China on climate has not progressed in any visible way over the past year or so. After Presidents Biden and Xi had a positive exchange in Bali last year, Kerry and Xie met during COP27 but this marks the official restart of talks almost a year ago.

Political factors complicate the prospect of cooperation. First, the United States and China have had fruitful exchanges on clean energy technology research and development in the past, but this type of cooperation is no longer on the table as national security concerns over the weaponization of supply chains and Washington’s concerns over tech competition with China grow. Moreover, the United States, like other developed countries, is concerned that China may capture a disproportionate share of the economic benefits from decarbonization efforts worldwide thanks to its central role in clean energy technology supply chains. The two countries will need to agree on areas where they can cooperate without threatening their national security. This will be further strained by the complex politics on climate change in the United States as well as tensions in the bilateral relationship.

China’s own politics present a challenge to its climate commitments. The slow pace of economic recovery in China means the leadership is unlikely to revise its climate targets since a more rapid timeline on phasing out coal could affect economic growth and energy security, especially if not planned out carefully. Extreme weather incidents, like the record-breaking temperatures experienced in Northern China this summer, could also undermine more rapid action on climate mitigation by threatening energy supplies. For example, last year’s heat waves led to widespread shortages as hydropower generation capacity dropped because of droughts and demand spiked due to the increased need for air conditioning. This year the government has been determined to avoid blackouts by relying more on coal plants, it issued more new permits for coal-powered plants in 2022 than any time since 2015.

Q3: Was the trip a success and what topics are on the table?

A3: The State Department’s official statement prior to the trip was carefully worded to avoid explicit goals and the only topics that were singled out were to engage with China on “increasing implementation and ambition and promoting a successful COP28.” This is consistent with readouts from the meetings between Kerry and Li and Wang which indicate that Kerry discussed the need for China to raise its ambition and decarbonize its power sector. Xi Jinping did not meet with Kerry but gave a speech at the National Conference on Ecological and Environmental Protection where he stressed that China would follow its own timeline on climate policy, rejecting foreign pressure. This has consistently been China’s position and likely a response to Kerry’s calls for bolder commitments. The speech highlights some of the challenges in finding common ground on climate policy as the two countries navigate broader diplomatic tensions.

The visit did not lead to any tangible outcomes, but Kerry himself was quick to point out that the goal of the trip was to "unstick" talks on climate change. The area where most experts hope to see some progress is methane emissions, which are a potent greenhouse gas. China indicated it would develop an action plan to reduce methane emissions in the joint declaration issued with the United States during the 2021 COP26 meeting in Glasgow but has yet to make it public. If China were to make commitments on methane before or during COP28, this would be a clear win for Kerry that he could point to when responding to critics in Washington.

Another sensitive topic is whether the two countries can insulate climate talks (and potentially other topics concerning global governance, like health) from the broader ups and downs in the relationship. This is something that the United States has been pushing for but is unlikely to happen and that China has explicitly resisted. The readout from the meeting with Wang explicitly states that cooperation on climate is inseparable from the broader environment of U.S.-China relations.

Finally, China’s status as a developing country in the United Nations continues to determine the level of climate ambition it is expected to commit to. For example, China says it will not make financial contributions to the recently created fund to help lower-income countries adapt to climate change. This has long been a controversial issue that the United States has repeatedly brought up but is unlikely to be resolved.

Despite significant differences, the meeting readouts suggest that all parties view cooperation on climate positively. For example, Li indicated openness to potential “pragmatic institutionalized cooperation” aimed at promoting multilateral governance on climate and Vice President Han Zheng mentioned the two countries could make “new contributions” to address climate change. This could be hinting at enhancing cooperation through a working group, which was agreed on in the joint declaration, and possibly new commitments in China’s nationally determined contributions (NDC).

Q4: What comes next?

A4: The visit has a dual set of objectives: to stabilize relations overall and deepen cooperation on climate and encourage China to take stronger action on emissions. Given the Chinese government’s unwillingness to separate the two issues, the success of climate cooperation will likely hinge on stable relations more broadly.

On the climate front, the next big meetings to keep an eye on are the UN General Assembly which Xi Jinping has used to make climate commitments in the past (most notably the 2020 announcement that China would to peak emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2060) and COP28, which will be held from November 30 to December 12 in Dubai and which both Xie and Kerry will likely attend. Perhaps even more important will be the outcome of the current diplomatic push and whether Biden and Xi will meet this fall. An agreement on climate could be a diplomatic win on both sides.

Ilaria Mazzocco is a senior fellow with the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Senior Fellow, Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics