Updated 11:10 a.m. ET on January 11, 2021.
Competition with China will likely be the most difficult foreign-policy issue that President-elect Joe Biden will face. What he decides to lead with and the precise mix of areas in which he engages and confronts Beijing are critically important. This is why Biden’s choice of John Kerry as a special presidential envoy on climate change might create a problem for the incoming president on China policy.
Biden appointed Kerry, an old friend and trusted ally who came within a hair’s breadth of being elected president in 2004, and empowered him with an expansive mandate on an issue that touches virtually every other area in domestic and foreign policy. This appointment also gives him membership on the cabinet and the National Security Council, and authorization to use a military aircraft for his diplomacy. However, Biden does not yet appear to have defined the limits of Kerry’s role and explained how it will be integrated into the broader strategy. This has some of Biden’s other advisers worried.
According to three people familiar with Kerry’s thinking, Kerry believes that cooperation with China is the key to progress on climate change and that climate is by far the most important issue in the relationship between the United States and China. Kerry thinks the U.S. president should use his political capital to press Beijing on this subject. Yes, the United States should stand firm when it disagrees with Beijing, as he believes it did during his tenure as secretary of state, but everything else, including geopolitical competition with China, is of secondary importance to this overarching threat. As he put it in an interview with ProPublica before the election, “China is about to bring 21 gigawatts of coal fired power online. India is poised to do slightly less, but similarly huge amounts. That’s going to kill us. That’s going to kill the efforts to deal with climate.” For Kerry, a deal with China is the key.