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Biden and China: Divisions Within the Administration Over China Reveal a White House of Cards

President Biden faces a clash within his inner circle over how to square needing China’s help on climate change while grappling with China’s assertiveness abroad and abuses at home.

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World leaders and diplomats will begin arriving Glasgow, Scotland over the coming weekend to open the UN’s climate change conference known as COP26. And for the world’s two largest polluters, the United States and China, domestic politics will play an outsized role in this global summit.

President Biden placed climate change and the great power rivalry with China at the top of his foreign policy agenda, but the teams he assembled to address these issues have recently come to loggerheads over how to synthesize the two strategies.

For the national security team, spearheaded by National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan, the core problem with China’s growing power is that it places its interests in direct challenge to America’s. While China has made plenty of commitments to reducing carbon emissions and investing in renewable energy, it is still the global center of coal power and has opted to export coal powerplant production overseas as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Furthermore, China is currently caught in an energy crunch that presents no easy solution for policy makers. Coal has been chosen by Chinese officials as crucial to ending the energy shortage. Combined with the news, reported by the Washington Post, that President Xi Jinping will not attend the Glasgow summit, this paints a gloomy picture for Biden’s global climate agenda.

President Biden, however, faces domestic problems of a different kind.

Despite his administration’s desire to champion the passage of his Build Back Better legislation at Glasgow, Senators from within his own party have successfully whittled down the climate provisions to pale imitations of the initial proposals. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, for example, neutered language to spend $150 billion to slowly phase out coal power in favor of wind, solar, and nuclear energy.

But Biden faces a deeper, more intractable disagreement inside his inner circle. NSA Sullivan sees China as both the source and solution to many problems, including South China Sea navigation, repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and the growing fog of war surrounding Taiwan. The United States can’t bend on these issues that form part of a growing policy consensus within the US about confronting China. As such, Sullivan advocates a multilateral approach that combines American leverage with that of like-minded powers to pressure China

Sullivan’s perspective clashes with that of John Kerry, the President’s Special Climate Envoy, who sees China as so critical to addressing climate change swiftly that a Sino-American bilateral approach, over and above our allies, is the best strategy.

The upcoming summit follows the new revelation that Kerry has profited from  Chinese energy companies blacklisted by the United States for forced labor practices in Xinjiang. This highlights the deep entanglement between the major economies and the financial interests of national leaders around the world.

Now, as the President and his team look ahead to Glasgow, the challenge lies both in synthesizing divergent strategies into a coherent policy and in not letting personal interests topple a delicate White House of cards.