Can Californian governor's trip offer breakthrough for China-US engagement?
Published: Oct 27, 2023 12:48 AM
California Gov. Gavin Newsom walks up a section of the Mutianyu Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing, on October 26, 2023. Photo: VCG

California Gov. Gavin Newsom walks up a section of the Mutianyu Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing, on October 26, 2023. Photo: VCG

Californian Governor Gavin Newsom's trip to China has drawn much attention both in China and the US over the past several days. As the first US state governor to visit China in more than four years, Newsom has been warmly received by Chinese officials and the public. Experts are pondering whether the trip could offer a breakthrough for increased China-US engagement, particularly at the subnational level.

As a Democratic governor with a national profile in the US, Newsom's decision to visit China has also drawn criticism from some US Republican politicians and right-wing pundits on Fox News and other channels, but the trip has been productive and successful in several aspects, including agreements reached on cooperation in green development and tackling climate change - which the governor's office said is the main goal of the trip.

Apart from a series of high-level meetings with top Chinese officials, Newson's trip has also yielded a pair of cooperation documents so far. On Wednesday, Newsom and Zheng Shanjie, head of China's National Development and Reform Commission, the top economic planning agency, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on enhancing cooperation on strengthening low-carbon development and green transition.

Among other things, the MOU will ensure cooperation in areas such as activities to mitigate carbon emissions while enabling sustained economic growth and activities that exchange views on mid-term economic and energy planning documents, according to the MOU released by Newsom's office.

On Tuesday, in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, where Newsom met with local officials, relevant departments of Guangdong and California also inked an MOU on strengthening cooperation on green development, according to a statement from the Guangdong provincial government. In Guangdong, footage of Newsom's visit to an electric carmaker and test drive of an electric vehicle was widely circulated.

During Newson's weeklong trip, which also includes stops in Shanghai and East China's Jiangsu Province, five MOUs are expected to be signed between California and various Chinese authorities, according to a report on US media outlet Politico.

"California is often hit by wildfires, so it feels the impact of climate change deeply. Therefore, strengthening China-US cooperation on climate is one of the important topics during Newsom's visit to China," said Gao Lingyun, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Newsom also repeatedly underscored the importance of China-US cooperation in tackling climate change.

"Divorce is not an option. The only way we can solve the climate crisis is to continue our long-standing cooperation with China. As two of the world's largest economies, the work we do together is felt in countless communities on both sides of the Pacific," he was quoted as saying in a press release from his office. "Addressing climate change can be the bridge we've been missing. I made it clear to Chinese leaders that California will remain a stable, strong, and reliable partner, particularly on low-carbon, green growth."

Amid a particularly fraught period in China-US relations, climate cooperation has become a highlight in bilateral engagements, and to a certain extent it is helping in increasing exchanges, analysts said.

In July, US Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry visited China, in a trip that was widely viewed as helping to ease China-US tensions. Besides Kerry, several other senior US officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have also visited China recently.

Before Newsom's trip, a US congressional delegation led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also visited China. However, analysts said that Newsom's trip stands out, as China-US subnational cooperation has traditionally been robust, even when things are tense at the national level.

"There may be more ideological influence within the federal government, but at the local level, economic and trade cooperation carries more weight," Gao said, noting that US federal officials often talk about "decoupling," but that is not realistic, particularly at the local level, where pragmatic, mutually beneficial economic and trade cooperation is crucial.

This has also been reflected in robust economic and trade cooperation between China and many US states. For instance, China is California's largest trading partner, with $165.79 billion in two-way trade in 2022, according to Newsom's office. In fact, before the US government under former president Donald Trump waged a trade war with China in 2018, China was one of the top three trading partners for 39 US states in 2017, with 30 states' exports to China exceeding $1 billion, according to China Media Group (CMG).

Many US state governments have also pursued initiatives to boost economic and trade cooperation with China. Between 2013 and 2016, at least six US state and local governments, including Chicago, Iowa, Texas and New York, launched joint working groups on trade and investment cooperation with China, CMG reported on Thursday.

Evidently, such subnational cooperation has also been affected as China-US relations have been on a downward spiral with the US government's zero-sum game of trade wars, technological blockades and economic sanctions, in an attempt to contain China's rise. This zero-sum mentality is still rampant in Washington DC, as shown by the criticism from Republican lawmakers and right-wing media pundits on Fox News, who attacked Newsom just because he made the trip, regardless of the content of the trip and how it's important for California and the US.

In Beijing, Newsom said he "completely rejects" the framework of a zero-sum game, which is "very dangerous." Meanwhile, Californians are also supportive of their governor's international diplomacy focused on climate change, according to a US expert.

"Californians feel quite firmly that no one should be telling Gov. Newsom, for example, that he can't go to China," Ian Klaus, director of Carnegie California, was quoted by Politico as saying.

Such public support and the success of Newsom's China trip could open the door for more engagements between China and the US at the subnational level, Chinese analysts said.

"[Newsom's] visit to China has positive significance, as it marks a breakthrough for deepening cooperation with China," Gao said, adding that "there may be more intensive exchanges in the future."