Do you recall the old joke about John Kerry? I think it might have been coined during his brave but failed bid to win the presidency from George W Bush in 2004 (when, by the way, Bush ran a really dirty and shameless campaign denigrating Kerry’s distinguished war record in Vietnam). So it’s old and not particularly funny:
“John Kerry walks into a bar. The bartender says: ‘Hey, why the long face?’”
Anyway, Kerry, now reborn as the United States special presidential envoy for climate change, has a great deal to be upbeat about these days. For he may be on the verge of saving the planet – surely enough to crack a smile on even the stoniest of features?
On his trip to Beijing, Kerry hopes to get President Xi to set new, tougher emissions targets for the Chinese economy, just as President Biden is planning to do for the US. He has chosen the right place to go. It used to be said, rightly, that America was the world’s leading polluter; that unwanted accolade now goes to the People’s Republic. Around 28 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from China, and its historical reliance on coal-fired power stations is well-documented, though nowadays it is reducing in favour of renewables. Visitors to China soon realise that what they think is an overcast sky is in fact smog blocking out the sun. China emits about double the emissions of the United States these days, and, for what it’s worth by way of perspective, some 30 times what the UK pumps out.
Of course, China suffers in such comparisons unfairly, because much of the west’s CO2 emissions are effectively exported east as so many industrial products and consumer goods are manufactured there, rather than locally. Thus, China to some extent gets demonised for generating the energy needed to make all the stuff for Americans and Europeans. The Chinese breathe polluted air so we don’t have to, you could say. But still, China can do its bit to generate that energy that bit more sustainably. Quite a considerable bit, too: a helpful word or two from the mouth of President Xi to the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party would do more to ensure the survival of life on Earth than any number of Extinction Rebellion protesters gluing themselves to Tube trains in London.
This is why the Kerry mission is so important. We may be sure that the president’s envoy would not be travelling to Beijing just to leave empty-handed, and, frankly, any progress would be very welcome. After some unusually sharp exchanges recently between American and Chinese diplomats, and US-led international condemnation of Chinese human rights abuses, it is very surprising, and encouraging, that the Chinese have been willing to give Kerry a hearing.
What seems to be happening, remarkably, is that the different strands of the US-China relationship – human rights, trade, climate – are being run more or less on separate lines. Donald Trump was indiscriminately hostile and abusive towards China, not least causing unnecessary offence by blaming it for Covid and the “China virus”, and provoking a futile trade war. The Biden approach seems to be more subtle. If anything, Biden takes a harder line on the war on the Uighur Muslim people, but is also more willing to engage with China on trade, and, as now, is much more willing to work together on the challenges of the climate crisis. In the eyes of Trump, climate change was some sort of Chinese hoax, to which the best response was to burn more coal and exit the Paris Agreement: the Biden administration takes a more realistic view of it as a real global problem needing international action.
The Kerry visit, then, represents a hopeful moment in Sino-American dialogue, stabilising the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Things needed to be reset after the lunacies of the Trump years. It seems to be possible, against the odds, to criticise and even sanction China on human rights, the Uighur people, Hong Kong and China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, but cooperate on economics and the environment. Maybe it is a bit grubby, but unless we want to let the Chinese suffocate life on Earth, the west doesn’t have much choice.
The blunt truth is that, even if we wanted to, the rest of the world cannot ignore China, still less turn it into a pariah. The nation is an industrial and military superpower. Its Treasury holds vast quantities of American Treasury bonds, and could, if it wished, crash the dollar and financial markets any time it wanted (though it would be irrational to do so). China can exert useful influence on troublesome, dangerous regimes in North Korea and Myanmar. It can use its “Belt and Road” international industrial network for good. More than anything, China has the very future of the planet in the palm of its hand – surely the ultimate in negotiating leverage. If Kerry gets a climate deal in Beijing, there is no need for anyone to have a long face.