The reports that say John Kerry is going to China to discuss climate change, if proved correct, are good news for the United States, China and frankly, humanity.
China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon gases, with 28 percent of the total. The United States is the second largest with 15 percent, and is far ahead of China in emissions per capita. Action by Beijing and Washington alone would therefore make an immense contribution to reducing the threat of climate change. Disputes between the two were central to the failure of the Copenhagen talks on climate change in 2009, just as US-Chinese compromise was central to the Paris agreement of 2016.
Of course, only a few months later the new Trump administration pulled out of the Paris agreement, reversed the Obama administration’s policy, and reverted to denial of the very existence of anthropogenic climate change. This illustrates a key problem for the United States in climate change negotiations, and indeed for U.S. international relations more generally: reliability. Why should other states make serious concessions when any agreement reached by one White House may be torn up by the next one?
If the U.S. problem is reliability, the key Chinese one can be summed up in one word: coal. China has made extremely impressive strides in the development of alternative energy technologies, in which it now leads the world. At the same time, though coal’s share in Chinese electricity generation dropped from around 70 percent in 2010 to 56.8 percent in 2020, the huge growth in Chinese electricity demand meant that the actual volume of coal consumption rose 19 percent, to 53 percent of the world total.
These respective American and Chinese histories mean that there is absolutely no room on either side for hypocritical moral grandstanding on this issue. China cannot deny its continued increase in coal consumption, which contradicts the spirit of its pledges on climate change. The Biden team must not continue their previous campaign rhetoric about Biden stopping other countries from “cheating on their climate commitments." America’s own record simply does not permit such language.
John Kerry has expressed the hope that climate change can be made a “stand-alone issue,” isolated from U.S. pressure on China in other areas; but this will be very hard to achieve. Kerry has stated that, “obviously we have serious differences with China. Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That’s not going to happen.”
For years, American policymakers similarly dreamed that they could preserve cooperation with Russia in certain areas while attacking what Moscow saw as its vital interests in others. This proved to be pure fantasy.
If the administration wished to maintain a firm line towards China on certain issues while at the same time preventing an overall collapse in relations, it should have started off by stressing common interests in limiting climate change, and used that as a way of establishing a better atmosphere for relations in general. Instead, it began with arrogant bluster that will make negotiations on every issue more difficult.
Much of the Washington foreign policy commentariat has placed the threat of climate change amidst a host of other “priorities” in relations with China that future historians are likely to regard as virtually insignificant by comparison. Two in particular may be mentioned in this context: the Chinese occupation of uninhabited reefs and sandbanks in the South China Sea, and Sino-Indian clashes over small and largely uninhabited territories in the Himalayas.
If we fail to limit climate change and sea levels rise drastically, then those sandbanks will all be under water sometime next century, and our descendants are going to find it very hard indeed to understand what all the fuss was about. If the Himalayan glaciers disappear as a result of climate change, drastically reducing the rivers on which hundreds of millions of South Asians depend for their water, it is very unlikely that future historians will think that Chinese possession of the Galwan Valley was really the most important Himalayan threat to India and the world.
U.S. climate change policy towards China will naturally contain strong elements of competition, for example in the production and sale of electric cars. This is not in itself a bad thing, if it promotes alternative energy and technological progress in the United States and the sort of positive, non-military contributions to human advancement in general that characterized the space race between America and the Soviet Union.
At the same time, however, the Biden administration should explore the possibility of co-operation with China on joint projects in areas where competition is not yet locked in: notably, the attempt (which may of course fail) to develop carbon capture technologies on a scale large enough to bring about serious reductions. It would also be worth exploringhow the U.S. and China could lead future international efforts in “geo-engineering,” especially in the Arctic, if sufficiently rapid reductions in emissions prove impossible and climate change risks accelerating out of control. Should this one day prove unavoidable, it is essential that it should be done by international agreement and not by great powers competing for national advantage. Washington and Beijing could also jointly pledge to dedicate much greater resources to the Green Climate Fund to help the developing world grow in less carbon-intensive ways and adapt to the harmful effects of climate change.
It may also be necessary for Washington to threaten new tariffs on Chinese imports linked to emissions targets, if only in order to overcome domestic U.S. criticism that by moving away from fossil fuels the country is disadvantaging itself economically. The Biden administration has signaled that it is considering such a tool. Such tariffs will only work however if developed in concert with the European Union (and if possible Japan and South Korea); if they are universal, and do not create exemptions for U.S. partners like India and Saudi Arabia; and if Washington meets those standards itself, and sticks to them. If not, new tariffs would be a terrible blow to US-European relations, to U.S. prestige, and to what is left of a rules-based order in international trade. Above all, in dealing with China on climate change emissions, the Biden administration must always keep in mind that the absolutely central issue is the reduction of Chinese reliance on coal. Pressure on China over this is necessary, but so are offers to share US technology, and of course action by the United States itself to move quickly and completely away from coal.
There is however another factor, which illustrates the difficulty of hoping for progress in one area of relations while promoting hostility in others. The more that China fears a possible U.S. blockade of its seaborne liquid natural gas imports, the more it will continue to rely on domestically-produced coal. So here too, it is not possible to isolate climate change from the wider U.S. security relationship with China.
If the Biden administration is really serious about reducing global carbon emissions, then the issue of Chinese coal consumption will have to be central to both. This will require Washington to pursue strategies that aim to reduce military tensions with Beijing and promote mutual compromise in maritime disputes in the waters around China — an approach that will also have the benefit of promoting peace and stability in Asia.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Rachel Esplin Odell is a Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute and an expert in U.S. strategy toward Asia, Chinese foreign policy, and maritime disputes. She was an International Security Fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School from 2019 to 2020. She received her PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where her dissertation studied the politics of how countries interpret the international law of the sea. Odell previously worked as a Research Analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, co-authoring several policy reports and organizing numerous public forums, government briefings, and Track II workshops. She has also served in the China Affairs bureau of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Odell’s writings have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, War on the Rocks, The National Interest, and The Diplomat, among other publications. She has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University, and MIT’s Center for International Studies. Her research on the relationship between maritime power and international law received the Alexander George Award from the Foreign Policy Analysis Section of the International Studies Association. She holds an AB summa cum laude in East Asian Studies with a secondary field in Government from Harvard University and has advanced proficiency in Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry. (Frederic Legrand - COMEO/Shutterstock)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.