US special climate envoy John Kerry sidestepped a question about China’s use of slave labor during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference on Wednesday, saying the issue was “not my lane.”
Kerry was responding to a query from a reporter who asked the former secretary of state if he had mentioned human rights issues — including Beijing’s “use of forced labor in Xinjiang for building solar panels” — during recent meetings with Chinese leaders.
“Well, we’re honest. We’re honest about the differences, and we certainly know what they are and we’ve articulated them, but that’s not my lane here,” Kerry said. “That’s — my job is to be the climate guy, and stay focused on trying to move the climate agenda forward.”
The US has blocked imports of solar panels from at least four companies that source products from forced labor in Xinjiang — a province in northwest China where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are detained in camps and made to work against their will.
On Monday, the Washington Free Beacon reported that US Customs and Border Protection had seized a shipment of imports from Chinese company LONGi Green Energy Technology, which buys polysilicon from three companies linked to Xinjiang-based Hoshine Silicon Industry.
LONGi is the world’s largest maker of solar panels — and Kerry holds a $1 million stake in an investment fund backing the company.
Republicans and China watchers have repeatedly accused Kerry of downplaying Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang in order to try to win concessions on climate.
This spring, Kerry acknowledged that China’s use of Xinjiang-based materials in manufacturing solar panels was “a problem” for the administration’s climate strategy.
Throughout his time as President Biden’s special envoy, Kerry has urged China to “be part of the solution.”
“Climate is existential for everybody on the planet,” he said in May. “We have to deal with it and because China is nearly 30 percent of all the emissions on the planet, China’s got to be part of the solution.”
In a statement to Fox News on Thursday, the State Department affirmed the two nations “have mutual interests in solving the climate crisis while there’s still time, even when we fundamentally disagree on other critical issues.”
Other members of the Biden administration have also hedged on the question of whether to prioritize the threat from China’s military or climate change.
On Wednesday, chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US sees the two issues as “equally important” threats.
“I think we get paid to examine all the threats to our national security, and I don’t know that it does anybody good to put some sort of relative analysis assessment on that,” said Kirby, who emphasized that climate is a “real and existential national security threat.”
“And we consider China as the number one pacing challenge for the department,” he added. “Both are equally important.”