Joe Biden cabinet: John Kerry as climate tsar ‘may cool US-China tensions’
- Kerry and Chinese counterparts cooperated on climate change when he was secretary of state in the Obama administration
- But restoring international ties severed under Donald Trump may prove difficult or create fresh power struggles with Beijing
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.
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“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.
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“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.”
“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.
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“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.”