U.S. envoy John Kerry's diplomatic quest to stave off the worst scenarios of global warming is meeting resistance from China, the world's biggest climate polluter, which is adamant that the United States ease confrontation over other matters if it wants Beijing to speed up its climate efforts.
Rights advocates and Republican lawmakers say they see signs, including softer language and talk of heated internal debate among Biden administration officials, that China's pressure is leading the United States to back off on criticism of China's mass detentions, forced sterilization and other abuses of its predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region.
But the White House took a step this past week that could further deepen the U.S.-China divide, forming a security alliance with Britain and Australia that will mean a greater sharing of defense capabilities, including helping equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
President Joe Biden came out strong from the start of his presidency with sanctions over China's abuse of the Uyghurs, and his administration this spring called it genocide. But the U.S. desire for fast climate progress versus China's desire that the U.S. back off on issues such as human rights and religious freedom is creating conflict between two top Biden goals: steering the world away from the climate abyss and tempering China's rising influence.
It would be “disastrous in the long term for the United States government to backtrack, tone down, let the Chinese manipulate the issue,” said Nury Turkel, a Uyghur advocate and the vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory panel that makes policy recommendations to the White House and Congress.
Chinese leaders repeatedly linked the issue of climate change and their complaints over perceived U.S. confrontation on human rights and other issues during Kerry's most recent China trip this month, Kerry told reporters in a call.
The Chinese complained specifically about sanctions the administration has put on China's globally dominant solar panel industry, which the U.S. and rights groups say runs partly on the forced labor of imprisoned Uyghurs.
“My response to them was, 'Hey, look, climate is not ideological, it's not partisan, it's not a geostrategic weapon or tool, and it's certainly not, you know, day-to-day politics,'” said Kerry. He told reporters he could only relay China's complaints to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
China in 2019 pumped out 27% of climate-eroding fossil fuel fumes, more than the rest of the developed world combined. The United States is the second-worst offender, at 11%.
That makes China central to the world's fast-evaporating hopes of cutting fumes from use of petroleum and coal before catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable and irreversible.
China under President Xi Jinping has said it will hit peak climate pollution by the end of this decade and then make China climate pollution neutral by 2060, a decade later than the U.S. and other countries have pledged.
As China asserts its economic influence and territorial claims, and tension and competition rise with the United States, Xi and his officials have shown no desire to be seen as following the U.S. line on climate or anything else.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the U.S. diplomat in a video meeting on Kerry's latest China trip that “China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations.''
The U.S. should “take positive actions to bring China-U.S. relations back on track,” Wang added, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.