A Meeting of Great Powers: Kerry’s Trip to China

On February 15th, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in what Kerry described as a meeting between two great powers. Â  While some experts may dispute that China has achieved great power status, it is indisputably becoming an influential actor in global affairs.  Kerry and Xi discussed topics ranging from China’s ambitions for the South China Sea to Japan’s prime minister to global climate change.  In this article we outline the two parties’ objectives and place them in context.

American Priorities

On November 23rd, 2013, China produced a map and coordinates defining an expanded ADIZ that included the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.  This action incensed Japanese and American officials because it meant that China was going to require all planes that flew over that territory to identify themselves to the Chinese government.  This situation was further complicated by the fact that there is no international law governing ADIZs.

Recent Chinese editorials have speculated that China will create a second ADIZ for the South China Sea.  This speculation has led top State Department officials and military officers to threaten a change in the United States' Asian strategy should China create an ADIZ.  The first item on Kerry's agenda will probably be dissuading China from imposing a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

China's Objectives

Chinese officials have been very clear about the main issue they were going to discuss with the United States.  Several editorials from Xinhua News “ the media mouthpiece of the Chinese leadership — have demanded that Kerry stop Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from remilitarizing Japan.  They are concerned that Abe intends to follow through on his campaign promise to overturn Article 9  of Japan's constitution.  This is the provision that prevents Japan from raising a military. A rearmed Japan could potentially engage China in an arms race for dominance in East Asia.  This is clearly a poor outcome for Chinese leaders.

Common Interests

12532100403_ef5e60ba29_bDespite their disagreements over maritime territory and Japan, both China and the United States have called for increased cooperation to fight climate change and promote the development of clean energy.  President Obama has explicitly stated that he intends to reduce American carbon emissions to 83% of 2005 levels by 2020.  However, those reductions will not have any global net effect if they are offset by increases from China.

China's leaders have opposed imposing restrictions on carbon and sulfur emissions in the past, but it appears that their attitudes are changing.  One reason for the change is the deteriorating air quality in China's northeastern cities.  Increased levels of smog decrease air quality for high level officials and citizens alike.  They also represent a possible focal point for collective action against China's leaders.  Additionally, climate change poses a risk to many of China's largest coastal cities. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Tianjin all face greater flood risks if global sea levels continue to rise.  To achieve meaningful reductions in their CO2 emissions, Chinese and American officials have proposed sharing technological advances in clean energy and energy efficiency.


While the results of their discussions on Japan and the South China Sea have not been made public, Xi Jinping and John Kerry reached an agreement on climate change.  The United States will provide China with technology to assist it in reducing sulfur emissions from cars, trucks, and power plants.  Additionally, the United States will share its carbon sequestration technology with Chinese utilities.

The takeaway from this exchange is that despite tensions over territories and allies, both countries are harmed by the local and global effects of pollution and can only solve global problems “ like climate change “ by working together.  Kerry and Xi's meeting, like the countries they represent, was likely fraught with tension but defined by common interests.

The following two tabs change content below.

Patrick Chester

graduated from the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies in 2014 with an MA in International Politics and a regional focus on China. During the years 2009 and 2010, he studied Chinese at Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing, China. During his term as a staff writer on China Focus, Patrick wrote on numerous topics relating to China including Chinese economic policy and conflict in the South China Sea. He also took active roles in the student groups China Focus and China Language Film Society. He intends to pursue a PhD in Political Science and continue to research China's political development.

Start typing and press Enter to search