John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, is reinforcing a dangerous Chinese mindset by not talking about human rights. He is surrendering the most important leverage the U.S. has over China. Even if he thinks he should try to obtain China's cooperation on climate — a debatable goal — he is going about it the wrong way. If you want to get Chinese communists to do something, you have to impose great costs. That gives them an incentive to do something to relieve the pain. Offers of cooperation never work for long. Unfortunately, Beijing believes signals of friendship show American weakness. Pictured: Kerry on September 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)
"Well, life is always full of tough choices in the relationship between nations," said John Kerry, responding to Bloomberg's David Weston on September 22. Weston had asked him, "What is the process by which one trades off climate against human rights?"
What is wrong with Kerry's response? For one thing, such a trade-off violates the Genocide Convention of 1948, which requires signatories, such as the United States, to undertake "to prevent and to punish" acts of genocide. China is committing "genocide," as defined in Article II of the Convention, against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic minorities.
Second, Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, was going back on his word. In January, he said that climate was a "critical standalone issue" and promised that other matters "will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate."
Third, Kerry should know by now that, as a practical matter, no trade-off is possible with a militant communist regime such as the one run by the Communist Party of China.
So why is Kerry now in favor of trade-offs? For one thing, Beijing had told the Biden administration that relations were all or nothing, that there could be no "stove piping" issues as American diplomats traditionally tried to do with their cooperate-where-we-can-and-oppose-where-we-must approach. Chinese leaders, knowing how much Biden wanted an enhanced climate deal, had said there would be no Chinese cooperation on climate without American cooperation across-the-board.
The Beijing regime has, over the course of decades, attacked fundamental U.S. interests by, among other things, inciting violence on American streets, deliberately spreading COVID-19 beyond China's borders to America and the rest of the world, exporting fentanyl to the U.S. despite agreements to the contrary, stealing U.S. technology and other intellectual property, rejecting the principle of freedom of navigation, threatening to grab territory from American allies, and proliferating nuclear weapons technology.
The critical question now is this: What, in addition to the human rights of China's minorities, is the Biden administration willing to give up to get a climate deal with Beijing?
Democracies tend to deal with each other as Kerry evidently envisions, where cooperation on one issue can lead to warm relations and warm relations can lead to agreement in other areas.
Unfortunately, that is not the way communist states, especially China's, operate. Kerry's immediate predecessor as secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, found that out the hard way in February 2009. "We have to continue to press them," she said in Seoul, before journeying to Beijing, referring to a list of disagreements with the Chinese leadership. "But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those."
As Laurence Brahm, a China-watcher with close connections then to Beijing, said at the time, China's leaders were "ecstatic" when they heard Clinton's words because they signaled that she would not be talking about human rights. Her concession, he said, was a confirmation that the United States "had finally succumbed to a full kowtow before the celestial emperor."
China did not return Clinton's gesture of cooperation. On the contrary, Beijing pressed the advantage and went on a bender. The following month, for instance, Chinese craft harassed the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance vessel, in international waters in the South China Sea and even attacked it, trying to sever its towed sonar array. The Victorious, Impeccable's sister ship, was subject to extreme harassment in March and May 2009 in the Yellow Sea.
The lesson is clear. Even if one does not care about human rights, it is not productive to ignore China's atrocities. Although these rights may not be important to Clinton or Kerry, the issue is critically important to an insecure regime like China's.
China puts its brightest diplomats to work on human rights issues precisely because it knows it has no defense, especially now when Beijing is committing not only genocide but also other crimes against humanity. Mass rape, slavery, torture, and killing of minorities are impossible to justify. When the Biden administration does not talk about these crimes, it relieves great pressure on the Chinese regime.
Ronald Reagan was right: the nature of these regimes does matter. Cooperation between China and the United States, whether over climate change or anything else, is not possible, especially in light of exceedingly belligerent Chinese behavior. We know from the comments of Renmin University's Di Dongsheng in late November that, with President Donald Trump gone, China's leaders now feel they can do whatever they want.
Kerry is reinforcing that dangerous Chinese mindset by not talking about human rights. He is surrendering the most important leverage the United States has over China. Even if he thinks he should try to obtain China's cooperation on climate — a debatable goal — he is going about it the wrong way.
If you want to get Chinese communists to do something, you have to impose great costs. That gives them an incentive to do something to relieve the pain. Offers of cooperation never work for long. Unfortunately, Beijing believes signals of friendship show American weakness.
What makes the Chinese regime such a human rights abuser at home makes it an irresponsible power abroad. By defending the human rights of the Chinese people, Americans are, in a very real sense, also defending their national security.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board.