Smoke stacks in Beijing, China.

Smoke stacks in Beijing, China. Getty Images / DuKai photographer

Working With China on Climate is ‘Most Important Element’ of the Decade, NSC Official Says

Kurt Campbell also talked about how Biden’s China policy is different from Trump’s and how to reconcile cooperation with an authoritarian state.

The U.S.-China relationship will be overwhelmingly ruled by competition, but the two powers must cooperate in one area: fighting climate change, the National Security Council’s China expert said.

Kurt Campbell, the NSC’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, said Thursday that it’s critical for American officials to bring China in line with global efforts to cut emissions and end global warming. 

“There are elements of our bilateral relationship and global politics that require a degree of constructive engagement between the United States and China…One of the most effective arenas of diplomacy is in the arena of climate,” Campbell said at a virtual event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think everyone recognizes that the most important element of the next 10 years is to bring China more into the global framework associated with climate.”

Last November, China and the U.S. announced an agreement to work together over the next decade on climate issues. That cooperation will include drafting standards to reduce emissions together and increasing the use of clean energy. China and the United States are also expected to meet in the first half of this year to work on how to reduce methane emissions, according to a joint statement issued at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. 

The joint statement sparked some cautious optimism from experts. Still, climate watchers expressed disappointment that Chinese President Xi Jinping did not attend the conference.  

Cooperation with China means working with an authoritarian state whose bleak record on human rights includes the genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Campbell said it’s important to approach that “with humility,” by recognizing that America’s record on both human rights and democracy is not perfect.

“Are we able to take the corrective steps to acknowledge our own shortcomings? It is through those practices in many respects that we animate and affect how other countries see us,” he said. “For me, it really is about our domestic example right now in the Indo-Pacific more than anything else.” 

A top priority for the Biden administration—and the biggest difference from the Trump administration, according to Campbell—is that America has the backing of allies around the world when it comes to its China policy. He pointed specifically to increasing partnerships with European allies in the Indo-Pacific, including the AUKUS alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States that was established in September. 

“This is not something that we’re going to do alone,” he said. “This is a larger engagement in which we need to work with allies and partners, so the most consequential element of our China policy…is in the region surrounding China, working with allies and partners…ensuring that we’re working for common purposes.”