US climate envoy John Kerry was expected to discuss more than the environment on his trip to China. Photo: AFP / Tolga Akmen

The visit to Tianjin by US President Joe Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry on September 1-3 is assuming a huge dimension, holding promise as a defining moment in the tense bilateral relationship between China and the US.

Unlike Kerry’s previous visit in April to Shanghai, his conversation has broadened and deepened this time around, going well beyond climate-change issues. 

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Kerry “via video link upon invitation” and took the opportunity to urge Washington to “take active steps to bring ties back on track.”

Wang underscored that cooperation in climate issues is in their mutual interest, but is not sustainable without an improved bilateral relationship. 

Wang recalled that China and the US have had a history of fruitful dialogue and cooperation bilaterally as well as on major international and regional issues, including climate change, which delivered “tangible benefits” to both, and those past achievements testify to the potentials to reach win-win results with mutual respect and common ground, while shelving differences. 

Wang said the ball is in the US court since the sudden deterioration of bilateral relations in recent years is attributable entirely to “a major strategic miscalculation” by the Donald Trump administration in viewing China as a threat and rival and to attempt to contain and suppress China.

He urged the Biden administration to take “concrete steps to improve ties.” 

Kerry responded positively to the effect that the US side is willing to work with China to “enhance dialogue, jointly improve ambitions, demonstrate leadership” and set an example for meeting the Paris Agreement goals, and this “will also create opportunities for addressing difficulties facing US-China relations.” 

Simply put, a reversal of the tense trajectory of the US-China relations is in the cards. Kerry’s initiative would only have been with Biden’s knowledge and approval. Kerry is a familiar figure in Beijing and his old-world diplomacy sans hectoring and bullying appeals to China – and Russia.  

US climate envoy John Kerry, right, meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi via a video link during Kerry’s visit to Tianjin on September 2. Photo: AFP / US Department of State

The “deployment” of Kerry signals a major turnaround in the Biden administration’s approach to China, which has been so far to continue with the compass set by Trump with some tweaking here and there.

The big picture, meanwhile, is that Biden may be winding down the tensions with both China and Russia.

Equally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s talks with Biden in the Oval Office on Wednesday also concluded on a low key that will be carefully noted in Moscow. 

Of course, it is too early to speak of a rethink in the US strategy. But Biden’s thoughtful, profoundly moving speech on Tuesday on the end of the war in Afghanistan gives very many encouraging signals about the compelling need for a rethink. 

To be sure, the competition with China and the counter-strategies against Russia may not go away overnight, but the confrontational approach can be dispensed with.

That said, the incipient signs of new thinking toward China should not be underestimated. The Chinese side will sense the new thinking. For one thing, strategic communication has begun on a serious note starting with the visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in July. 

This is the third time in the past two weeks alone that Wang has spoken with a senior US official where he strove to convey that within the orbit of an equal relationship of mutual respect for each other’s concerns, there are seamless possibilities of cooperation and coordination between China and the US, not only on bilateral relations but also regional and international issues. 

In his two phone conversations with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (both initiated by the latter) last month against the backdrop of the developments in Afghanistan, Wang Yi stated the parameters of win-win cooperation that will serve the interests of both countries and the world at large. 

Antony Blinken and Wang Yi have had several discussions recently. Photo: AFP / Andy Wong

In the first conversation on August 16, Wang was specific about China’s deep concern that the Biden administration has held on to Trump’s outrageous move to remove Uighur militant group the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

The Xinhua report put on record Blinken’s specific assurance that “such differences between the two sides … can be gradually resolved in a constructive way in the days to come.” 

In the second conversation on April 30, Wang stated China’s “resolute opposition” to the US politicizing the issue of tracing the origins of Covid-19, putting pressure on the World Health Organization and undermining the international community’s solidarity against the pandemic and the global scientific cooperation on origins tracing.

Kerry’s visit to China came in the immediate downstream of these exchanges. What message Kerry would have transmitted to Wang can only be a matter of conjecture at this point. But what is clear is that post-Afghanistan, US strategic priorities are being reset. 

Biden made that clear pithily, painfully, powerfully when he said in his speech on Monday: “We’ve been a nation too long at war.  If you’re 20 years old today, you have never known an America at peace.

“Most tragically, we see it in the shocking and stunning statistic that should give pause to anyone who thinks war can ever be low-grade, low-risk, or low-cost: 18 veterans, on average, who die by suicide every single day in America – not in a far-off place, but right here in America.

“There’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war.  It’s time to end the war in Afghanistan.” 

Suffice to say, Kerry has gone beyond discussions about global warning and Beijing is making it clear that it welcomes a broader discussion. The South China Morning Post reported that on Thursday morning Kerry held talks with Politburo Standing Committee member and Vice Premier Han Zheng, who carries overall responsibility for China’s domestic economy.

Significantly, Kerry also held talks with Politburo member Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior diplomat. It does look already that a confrontational approach toward China may have become highly improbable during the Biden presidency. The geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region is on the cusp of change.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.