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California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) recent trip to China may have far-reaching implications both for the fight against climate change and his political future.
Public policy experts agreed the visit could become a catalyst for advances in critical climate change research, while also elevating the governor’s stature on the national political stage.
“It’s a very surprising move that he went so engagement-oriented, at a time when engagement is seen as a dirty word by some people,” Alex Wang, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles, told The Hill.
Wang, who also co-directs UCLA’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, was referring to a global era of geopolitical tension, in which having such vocal support from leaders represents “a green light for more collaboration.”
“If you believe that we need to move as quickly as possible on climate action and climate research, then this seems like a positive,” Wang said.
“What do these types of trips do? They send the political signals and they lay the groundwork for subsequent work,” he added.
Newsom’s visit to China — which followed a brief stop in Israel — was the first such trip made by an American governor in more than four years and in part served to thaw tensions between the countries, his office stated.
The trip, according to Newsom’s team, prioritized three goals: advancing climate action, promoting economic development and tourism, and strengthening cultural bonds. It also involved meetings with high-level officials, including President Xi Jinping.
Newsom, who is widely believed to harbor presidential ambitions, refrained from addressing whether the trip has bolstered his image on the national stage — noting during the press call that these considerations were not a reason for the trip.
But from an outsider’s perspective, Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego, told The Hill he believes the trip offered Newsom the opportunity “to be taken seriously as a presidential contender.”
“The image of you sitting next to the leader of the second most powerful country in the world elevates your image,” he continued.
“It comes with risks, as well as positives, but when you’re sitting next to President Xi, people can envision you as President Newsom,” Kousser added.
Building a bridge on climate action
Since his return stateside last weekend, the governor and his staff members have been touting the trip’s achievements in the geopolitical and climate change arenas.
“This is a governor who cares about climate, has been looking for a signature accomplishment on climate,” Kousser noted.
During the trip — which included meetings in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Beijing and Shanghai — California and various Chinese entities signed five memoranda of understanding (MOUs) that focus on forging new climate partnerships.
The subjects of these memoranda included partnerships on the deployment of offshore wind and other renewables, climate change adaptation and mitigation, industrial decarbonization and the creation of a future green shipping corridor between Los Angeles and Shanghai.
“If these MOUs turn into concrete actions, if the conversations lead to collaboration, this could be part of the legacy that he’s trying to build,” Kousser said of the governor.
Newsom expressed confidence that these documents are not aspirational and that they are being “taken very, very seriously” by Chinese officials.
“It was mentioned in multiple big meetings,” the governor said during the Tuesday press call. “When they make commitments, they aim to keep them.”
While Wang viewed these comments as a possible attempt to persuade reporters the MOUs “aren’t just symbolic,” he said he sees them as significant nonetheless.
“If China is in the mood and has interest in getting something out of these meetings, the MOUs are very strong enablers of the people who want to do those things within the system,” he said.
Since Newsom has met with Xi, there could be no “clearer signal that it’s okay to work with California,” Wang added.
Meetings between Newsom and Chinese officials also led to the issuance of a joint declaration on subnational climate cooperation — including actions such as aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, shifts away from fossil fuels and the development of renewables.
Later this month, California officials also plan to engage with Chinese counterparts at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco and at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, the governor’s office stated.
Ahead of APEC — where President Biden is expected to meet with Xi — Newsom said his trip “was an opportunity to build some momentum” and reinvigorate well-established partnerships.
As far as COP28 is concerned, the governor’s office said California’s delegation would be partaking in bilateral meetings with representatives from China and other critical partners.
“For me, it’s simple. California can’t solve its climate crisis alone — it needs partners,” Newsom told reporters on a Tuesday press call.
“The United States can’t either,” he continued. “Without the partnership of China, the globe is ultimately impacted.”
Newsom noted during the press call that China’s growing electric vehicle (EV) market has “taken off” and described the country as being “at a next level, in terms of their investments in the offshore wind.”
As California grapples with how to streamline its clean energy deployment and continue its path of rapid implementation, Wang stressed the state has a lot to learn from China.
He emphasized China “is by far the world leader” when it comes to its rapid deployment of clean energy infrastructure and electric transportation.
Although Wang acknowledged China’s looser protections on property rights and its streamlined participation process, he stressed these are not the only factors that have led to success.
“What is also true is that there has been a tremendous amount of policy and fiscal support for these things,” he said.
China’s transition hasn’t been perfect, but one advantage of ongoing engagement is the willingness of each side to admit their respective problems, Wang added.
In a post-trip wrap-up from Newsom’s office, his team went so far as to declare “the fate of the world releases on climate cooperation with China.”
Noting that pollution doesn’t stop at borders, the wrap-up posed two choices: refuse to collaborate with the world’s biggest emitter or find areas of commonality. California, the report declared, could “serve as a bridge on one of the most consequential issues of our time.”
Laying the groundwork for future collaboration
While Newsom’s trip to China was primarily focused on climate collaboration, his conversations touched upon other topics in the Golden State’s interests and of international focus.
During his post-trip press call, the governor recalled discussions of human rights issues, Taiwan and democracy in Tibet during his meetings with high-level Chinese officials, including Xi. He also recounted conversations about fentanyl and the drug’s precursors, many of which are produced in China.
Recognizing the inherent uncertainties linked to engagement with China, Kousser credited Newsom for pushing Xi on certain issues and for posing “very tough questions.”
For example, Kousser continued, the governor took “a big objection to American action on climate change” — the idea the U.S. shouldn’t act if China doesn’t — and faced it “head on by grabbing China’s hand and pulling it with us.”
These broader geopolitical considerations notwithstanding, Newsom reiterated a main goal of his trip: to present California as a stable partner and change-maker in the energy sector.
“Regardless of the prevailing winds in Washington, D.C., California continues to dominate in this space,” the governor said.
Stepping back and evaluating the trip in general, Wang said he couldn’t think of anything he would have liked to see happen that didn’t.
“He wanted to change the tenor of things, shift the direction of things and to lay the groundwork for future work,” the professor added of Newsom. “I think it really was successful in that regard.”
At the same time, however, Wang said he didn’t think the visit would open doors for future federal partnerships between the two countries.
U.S.-funded research projects do already exist in China, but agency-to-agency partnerships have wavered — coming to a halt during the Trump administration, according to Wang.
“There’s a political risk for Americans to do that kind of collaboration,” he added.
For his part, Newsom stressed that he visited China neither as a secretary of State nor as a representative of the Biden administration.
“I went there as governor of California,” he said. “I went there with longstanding relationships to China that go back decades.”