A political fight is brewing among wings of the Democratic Party over Beijing’s help in curbing climate change versus curbing its human rights abuses.
As a new Cold War takes shape between
the U.S. and China, progressives fear the result will be a dramatically warming
Over 40 progressive groups sent a letter to President Joe Biden and lawmakers on Wednesday urging them to prioritize cooperation with China on climate change and curb its confrontational approach over issues like Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and forced detention of Uyghur Muslims.
It's the latest salvo in the months-long drama between progressive Democrats who say cooperation on climate change should take precedence over competition with China, and moderates who think the administration can do both things at once. As the Biden administration solidifies its China strategy, and as anti-China legislation moves through Congress, this intra-Democratic tussle could define the U.S.-China relationship for years to come.
The progressive organizations, including the Sunrise Movement and the Union of Concerned Scientists, “call on the Biden administration and all members of Congress to eschew the dominant antagonistic approach to U.S.-China relations and instead prioritize multilateralism, diplomacy, and cooperation with China to address the existential threat that is the climate crisis,” their letter reads. “Nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new Cold War between the United States and China.”
“To combat the climate crisis and build a global economy that works for everyday working people — in the U.S. and China alike — we must shift from competition to cooperation,” the groups continued.
Challenging China’s regional human rights abuses and aggressions is central to Biden’s foreign policy, while the struggle between American-style democracy and Chinese-style authoritarianism serves as his presidency’s animating idea. “It is clear, absolutely clear ... that this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” Biden told reporters in April.
The standoff has led to frosty relations between the world’s most powerful countries with no signs of thawing any time soon.
Progressives say Biden must quickly reverse the trend or risk failing on another of his priorities: ending climate change. “His entire climate change agenda could be at risk if his anti-China campaign continues and grows,” said Erik Sperling, the executive director of Just Foreign Policy, one of the groups that signed on to the letter.
It’s not the first time progressives railed against the administration’s China approach. In May, prominent left-leaning lawmakers and 60 activist groups called on the president not to turn China into the 21st century’s Soviet Union. “We need to distinguish between justified criticisms of the Chinese government’s human rights record and a Cold War mentality that uses China as a scapegoat for our own domestic problems and demonizes Chinese Americans,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said at the time.
And last week, nearly 30 organizations pushed Speaker Nancy Pelosi to back a less confrontational version of anti-China legislation working its way through Congress.
The pressure isn't letting up. "We need a strategic approach to China that prioritizes our national security and economic competitiveness while creating spaces for cooperation on climate change and other global issues. I would have an approach of competitive cooperation. It’s early to say on how the administration approach will develop," said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a prominent Congressional progressive.
That puts Khanna and others at odds with moderate Democrats, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who argue the Chinese government’s actions must face stiff resistance from the United States. “There should be little doubt that China and the Communist Party under Xi Jinping’s brand of hyper-nationalism is unlike any challenge America has ever faced,” he said in April.
But this newest letter is another progressive shot across the bow, and they want to let the president know his China approach is dooming the world. “It’s a colossal blunder,” said Basav Sen, the climate justice policy director at the Institute for Policy Studies.
The Biden administration has long claimed it could silo its climate cooperation and geopolitical competition with China. “Obviously we have serious differences with China,” John Kerry, the president’s special envoy for climate change, told reporters in January. “Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That’s not going to happen.” As evidence, they point to China’s participation during the US-led climate summit in April where Beijing vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce coal consumption.
Progressives aren’t convinced, as they already see the broader U.S.-China spat bleeding into the climate-change effort. In June, for example, the US banned the import of solar panel material from a Chinese company over forced labor allegations.
“Cooperation with China on climate doesn’t absolve China or the U.S.on human rights,” said Karen Orenstein, director of the climate and energy program at Friends of the Earth U.S. But those issues shouldn’t impact how strongly Washington tackles the global climate change problem in tandem with Beijing, she said. “The climate emergency requires cooperation.”