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Climate Change

US envoy Kerry visits China to seek common ground on climate

Meeting with top Beijing diplomats is possible in first high-level visit under Biden

 U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- U.S. climate change envoy John Kerry met Thursday with Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua in Shanghai ahead of a major climate summit being organized by Washington, as the two powers seek common ground even as they jockey for leadership in the fight against global warming.

The trip -- the first by a senior official in U.S. President Joe Biden's administration amid a fractious relationship that some have called a "new Cold War" -- comes a week before the two-day virtual meeting starting April 22 when much of the world marks Earth Day.

The meeting, which looks to bring together 40 world leaders, is a symbol of the Biden administration's goal of returning the U.S. to multilateral cooperation after a retreat under predecessor Donald Trump. But it remains unclear whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend, and the event may not achieve much without the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases on board.

Also on Thursday, China's Foreign Ministry said Xi will on Friday meet with the leaders of France and Germany by video call for a three-way climate summit, signaling its own bid for leadership on the issue through talks with the European Union's two largest economies.

Kerry is likely pushing for Xi to participate in the U.S.-led summit while encouraging China to set ambitious climate targets. "We need, obviously, to have China at the table in order to be able to resolve this challenge," Kerry told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, left, arrives at a state guest hotel in Shanghai on Thursday.   © Reuters

Xie and Kerry led negotiations for their respective countries on the 2015 Paris climate accord while Kerry was secretary of state under then-President Barack Obama. The Chinese envoy was brought back to his post near the start of the Biden administration.

Kerry has also been long acquainted with Politburo member Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and it has been speculated that he may meet with them during this trip.

While Beijing is unwilling to cede the lead in climate negotiations, it is keen to create an opening to soften the Biden administration's hard line on China. The invitation for Kerry to visit Shanghai was intended to set the stage for a conciliatory mood.

China held an event in Shanghai this month commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1971 "pingpong diplomacy" that opened the door to the normalization of China-U.S. relations. Officials at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai and other American organizations participated in a friendly table tennis match for the occasion.

But Beijing may also see Kerry's visit as an opportunity to drive a wedge into a key link in Washington's efforts to rein in China, namely the alliance between the U.S. and Japan. The trip overlaps with Friday's summit between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, where climate change is expected to be high on the agenda.

The Biden administration has sought to nip any such ideas in the bud by signaling that it has no intention of compromising on security, economic or human rights issues for the sake of a speedier climate change deal.

"The climate issue is a free-standing issue. It's not for trade against the other critical differences that we have with China right now," Kerry told The Wall Street Journal.

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