U.S. climate envoy John Kerry was in China last week to meet with Chinese officials on issues related to climate change, in advance of the November UN climate conference. The meetings did not make much progress in this area, however, and China took the opportunity to criticize U.S. restrictions on imports of solar panels. This may indicate a difficult road ahead for U.S.-China cooperation on climate change.

No new Chinese commitments

According to a report from the South China Morning Post, China didn't agree to the U.S. proposal to make more commitments on climate change before the November United Nations climate summit, because China wants to stick to "its own plans and road map for achieving its climate goals." As a Washington Post article put it, "[t]here was no immediate indication that Beijing would agree to speed up its timeline for reducing emissions. A spokesperson from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, made the following statement along these lines during a press conference on September 3:

Based on the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities identified in the UNFCCC, and terms of national determined contributions underscored in the Paris Agreement on climate change, parties to the agreements are entitled to the sovereignty in emission targets and actions. As President Xi Jinping pointed out, addressing climate change is not what others ask us to. We are doing so on our own initiative. China has been acting up in ecological development and climate governance. Having over-fulfilled the climate action goals of 2020 ahead of schedule, China announced the objective and vision of carbon peaking, carbon neutrality and new goals of nationally determined contributions last year. China will live up to its words. China's climate actions have received extensive appreciation of the international community.

Can cooperation and confrontation co-exist?

While Kerry might have wanted to focus on climate change cooperation, broader China-U.S. tensions cannot be ignored. At the September 3 press conference, Wang Wenbin referred to "stumbling blocks" that could get in the way of China-U.S. climate change cooperation:

We hope the US side can view China and China-US relations in an objective and rational way, remove "stumbling blocks" on the path of China-US climate change cooperation and, in the spirit of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefits, aim for more outcomes in bilateral coordination and cooperation in climate change and other areas.

Along the same lines, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi put the environmental talks into the bigger picture of China-U.S. relations, indicating that it would be difficult for the two sides to reach agreement on this issue while being confrontational in other areas. On this point, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported the following from Wang Yi's video call with Kerry:

In recent years, China-U.S. relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse and are facing serious difficulties. The main reason is that the United States has made a major strategic miscalculation about China. As a Chinese saying goes, "He who tied the bell should untie it." The ball now is in the U.S. court. The United States should stop viewing China as a threat and rival, and cease containing and suppressing China all over the world; the United States should attach importance to and actively respond to the "two lists" and "three bottom lines" put forward by China, and take concrete steps to improve China-U.S. relations, rather than adding new problems to the old ones; the United States should carry out coordination and cooperation at bilateral, regional and global levels, based on the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, instead of one-way traffic.

Wang Yi said, China-U.S. cooperation on climate change not only serves the interests of both sides, but also benefits all mankind, which enjoys broad prospects for development. The U.S. side wants the climate change cooperation to be an "oasis" of China-U.S. relations. However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the "oasis" will be desertified. China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations. The United States should work with China to meet each other halfway and take positive actions to bring China-U.S. relations back on track.

Echoing Yi's statement, Vice-commerce minister Wang Shouwen told a China-U.S. trade event in Xiamen that "China and the United States have common ground in the area of climate change and cutting carbon emissions, but cooperation cannot be separated from wider trade issues between them," according to a September 8 Reuters report.

China raises the U.S. solar import restrictions based on forced labor concerns

It is clear that, as a general matter, China has been linking broader climate change issues to specific trade issues that have an impact on carbon emissions. One of the points the Chinese raised with Kerry was the recent U.S. restrictions on imports of solar products that were based on concerns about forced labor.

The Washington Post reported that Kerry said Chinese officials "did protest U.S. sanctions on Chinese solar panels." According to the article:

China’s government has denied forced labor is involved in the industry and said the sanctions hinder its ability to meet climate targets.

“They see that as a contradiction,” Kerry said.

Reuters reported on similar statements from Kerry as follows:

"On the one hand, we're saying to them - you have to do more to help deal with the climate," he said. "And on the other hand, their solar panels are being sanctioned which makes it harder for them to sell them."

The South China Morning Post also reported on these statements by Kerry:

The Biden administration’s recent actions targeting the Chinese solar panel industry over forced labour allegations in Xinjiang was a concern brought up by Chinese officials during the discussions with Kerry, according to the source.

“The US has asked the Chinese government to give up support to the coal plants … but it has imposed sanctions on China’s photovoltaic companies,” they said.

The South China Morning Post also cited Lu Xiang, a U.S. affairs expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, on this point. Xiang said that:

“There is room for discussion on climate cooperation in specific technical areas,” Lu said. “For example, the US restrictions on solar products from Xinjiang, which is not very beneficial for climate cooperation. Resolving climate issues will require technology, so the US cannot say they want to cooperate with China on climate but use human rights issues to restrict our photovoltaic products.”

Prospects for China-U.S. cooperation on climate change

The Biden administration has made the fight against climate change a priority. With regard to China-U.S. cooperation, the administration recognizes the importance of bringing China on board with the effort, and sees this as something that could defuse tensions in other areas.

China, of course, recognizes the Biden administration's goals and needs. It should come as no surprise that China would try to use its leverage to get things that it wants in exchange for cooperation on climate issues.

China's request that the Biden administration remove the import restrictions on solar panels is probably a stretch, though, as China probably realizes. Brushing aside human rights concerns in exchange for allowing Chinese imports would aggravate several domestic constituencies. Thus, it is hard to imagine the Biden administration making such a trade. (It's worth noting that there are three other proceedings going on right now that could lead to increased barriers to imports of Chinese solar products. And even though lowering the tariffs might bring down the domestic prices of solar products slightly and make them more affordable, key Biden trade officials seem to be more worried about preserving the U.S. solar industry than about supporting low-priced solar products.)

Cooperation may emerge eventually, but these meetings did not lead to any breakthroughs. For the Biden administration, one of the key issues, as an article in The Economist makes clear, is to reduce China's reliance on coal. It is not yet clear whether a deal that achieves this goal is possible.