Kerry’s Shanghai Visit Opens the Door for Engagement on Oceans

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House Leaders Climate Summit.

By Evan T. Bloom, Senior Fellow, Wilson Center Polar Institute, former Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Fisheries

A week ago, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry became the first senior Biden Administration official to visit China.  This is an important step for working with China on climate change, a significant Administration priority.  It should also mark the beginning of a concerted and necessary effort by the United States to reach out to China on other important topics — like ocean conservation — that both nations need to address together.

President Biden has indicated that, despite serious difficulties in the bilateral relationship with China, the United States will work with China in appropriate areas when it benefits the American people to do so.  Combatting climate change is one of those areas.  China and the United States are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases.  No global solution in that field can be achieved without both of them taking major and coordinated steps.  The success of the Paris Agreement process, which the United States has just rejoined, depends on this.  Thus, it made sense for Kerry to hold in-person talks with Chinese counterparts as he has recently done with India, the E.U., and others.

However, the topics where cooperation with China is feasible and that need to be addressed bilaterally do not stop with climate.  These two powerful countries must find ways to cooperate in addressing a suite of major international environmental issues, given the pivotal role they would need to play in reaching solutions that benefit the planet.

Indeed, following four years when the United States tended to walk away from international institutions, the Biden Administration has pledged to fully re-engage in multilateral fora and restore U.S. influence there, often in places that Americans helped establish in the first place.  These days, China plays a significant role in most of those institutions, as a delegation in its own respect and its influence over others.  Achieving U.S. goals will often require outreach to China through bilateral preparatory work where diplomacy paves the way for tangible outcomes.

As Secretary of State, Kerry actively championed efforts to protect the ocean, including holding high-level oceans policy dialogues with Chinese officials.  The same format or approach may not be suitable today, but efforts to bring China in on solutions to ocean problems are in our national interest and should be continued.  The United States and the international community will benefit if China reins in its huge high seas fishing fleets, commits to supporting sustainable fisheries and joins in efforts to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.  China is the largest source of plastic pollution entering the ocean.  In the past, it was open to working with the United States to address that problem, one that it (at least on occasion) recognizes.  Plastic pollution has reached the top tier of issues related to ocean conservation and addressing the problem requires action by China.

Just before the pandemic, the United Nations was entering the final round of negotiations of a major new treaty on conservation and sustainable use of the high seas.  Those talks, now on hold, will resume in coming months.  The United States and China, as major maritime nations, had been in contact on aspects of those negotiations affecting their interests.  This major treaty, if agreed, can only succeed if both governments are fully engaged in its negotiation, and the prospects of getting results that are beneficial to the environment are enhanced if they are talking directly.

In 2015, President Obama took the opportunity of Xi Jinping visiting the White House to press for Chinese agreement to establish the world’s largest marine protected area, in Antarctica’s Ross Sea.  This built on many efforts by U.S. officials to convince China to move forward, and China agreed to support the proposal later that year.  As China’s concurrence was required to establish this landmark protected area, which occurred the following year once Russia (also approached by the United States) came on board, U.S. involvement played a crucial and perhaps decisive role in this achievement.

Currently, other large-scale proposals for marine protection in Antarctica are being actively negotiated, and all of these, once again, require China’s support or at least acquiescence.  U.S. engagement, including bilaterally with China, could help.

Xi Jinping took part in Thursday’s Leaders Summit on Climate, speaking directly to President Biden as host of the Earth Day conference.  Xi said that China is looking forward to working with the international community “including the United States to jointly advance global environmental governance.”  That suggests an opening to work with the United States on environmental issues beyond climate.

Given the importance of China in world affairs, as the Biden Administration seeks to make progress in foreign relations across the board, open lines of communication and reaching mutual accommodation with China in some spheres will be required and in the U.S. interest.  That does not mean that the United States and other nations need to hold back on raising fundamental concerns, but it does require making room for a broader agenda.  John Kerry’s visit can lead to additional discussions with China that promote an array of vital U.S. objectives, such as in the ocean conservation field, even while issues making headlines receive the necessary attention.

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