Newsom goes against the political grain with China trip

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SAN FRANCISCO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom will make a high-stakes trip to China next week to strengthen relations with the communist regime on climate change while skirting foreign policy matters handled by his close allies in the Biden administration.

Newsom has scant diplomatic experience, but the governor and his team have coordinated the travel with the White House. A top surrogate for Biden’s reelection campaign, Newsom has said he’s solely focused on climate policy and wouldn’t do anything to undermine the administration’s delicate relations with China.

But the trip carries much deeper significance for Newsom, a potential future U.S. presidential contender. It presents him with the prospect of high rewards — and a threat of major pitfalls.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown, Newsom’s predecessor who deeply expanded ties with China during his time in office, said Newsom has the potential to make a serious impact on climate, in part because he’s engaging during such a challenging moment for U.S.-China relations.

“It takes some courage to go against the grain. And the grain in Congress and in the media, reflecting that political perspective, is highly antagonistic to China,” Brown, now chair of UC Berkeley’s California-China Climate Institute, said in an interview. “Newsom is eloquent enough that he can champion climate — and do it in a way that will be more effective than his critics.”

Newsom has the opportunity to broker agreements that could cement California’s reputation as a global leader of the green-energy economy. On a political level, he could bolster his foreign policy resume, an area where he has less experience than other potential White House hopefuls.

The governor, however, will walk a diplomatic tightrope as he meets with Chinese officials, including the leaders of several of its most influential provinces. His trip comes during a fraught time, as China’s once booming economy is faltering and its regime has grown increasingly militant and aggressive on a global stage.

It’s only Newsom’s second international trip in his official capacity as governor, despite holding office for the past five years. The Democratic governor’s itinerary will focus on areas where California and China can partner to reduce planet-warming emissions, including electric cars, high-speed rail and offshore wind.

Although Newsom is not acting as a foreign policy emissary for the administration, his team is steeped in that world. His top climate aide, Lauren Sanchez, was a senior adviser to presidential climate envoy John Kerry as well as a State Department negotiator during the U.N. climate talks in Paris.

The governor’s administration said the trip will be “predominantly focused on climate,” signaling that Newsom won’t touch on a host of hot-button issues. Leaders of both parties in Washington have increasingly criticized China over its stance on trade subsidies, intellectual property rights, human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province and its aggression over disputed claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Republicans are also attacking Biden’s hundreds of billions of dollars in climate spending by seizing on any possible links to Beijing. Newsom’s trip could inflame those attacks.

“The Chinese probably will be more willing to work with the state than the federal government,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City. “But he also has to be very careful that he doesn’t appear in Washington to be kind of violating federal government policy towards China.”

Brown and former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger both pursued close relationships with China on climate policy and trade, going back 15 years. Newsom, in contrast, has been less hands-on with international affairs, a duty he effectively handed off to Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Barack Obama.

Newsom has sought to pick up the mantle recently, inking a climate pact with the Chinese province of Hainan and renewing another Brown-era partnership with China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment last April.

Now, Newsom is dramatically upping the ante as he prepares to take on relations with the East Asian nation. But today’s China is a far more antagonistic actor than the emergent world power encountered by prior governors.

Relations between China and the United States took a particularly tense turn this year, after Biden’s administration shot down a Chinese spy balloon that came into U.S. airspace. Biden called Xi a “dictator” at a fundraiser in the Bay Area this past summer, and said the Chinese president had been “very embarrassed” by the incident. Earlier in the year, Xi accused the United States and European countries of engaging in “all-round containment, encirclement and suppression” of China to hamper its economic growth.

The rift has somewhat thawed in recent weeks, with a potential Biden-Xi meeting coming up at APEC and visits by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a congressional delegation led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Newsom allies and experts on China-California relations said the governor’s decision to wade in signals a key intention: his desire to help shape a more nuanced national narrative on China. That aim also can’t be decoupled from speculation about his presidential potential, though Newsom has downplayed his aspirations and said he’s focused on boosting Biden’s reelection bid.

Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy group that helped establish California’s trade office in China, said Newsom would inevitably face criticism from some opponents for engaging with a sometimes adversarial country.

“On the other hand, maybe it shows his temperament, that he’s a leader who believes more in discourse and diplomacy over finger pointing,” Wunderman said.

Several political observers said that in order to preserve the chance for progress on climate and to avoid diplomatic missteps that could overshadow the trip, Newsom should avoid speaking out about controversial aspects of China’s policies. They said he should avoid directly prodding Beijing in the way that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did when she traveled to Taiwan during her final year as speaker in 2022, despite objections from Xi and Biden’s administration.

China’s recent suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong, a former British colony, has drawn widespread condemnation. The governor does plan to travel to Hong Kong, though spokesperson Erin Mellon said he would focus on climate and “look to our federal partners on federal issues.”

There are clear signs Newsom is aiming to distance himself from saber-rattling around China on the national level.

Newsom recently expressed frustration with political and media narratives over tensions with China, including speculation that the country was behind a mystery buyer gobbling up land around Travis Air Force Base in California’s far East Bay Area. The buyer, as it turns out, was Silicon Valley investors.

“Divorce is not an option,” Newsom told POLITICO when he announced his climate-focused China trip last month. “The importance, the imperative of maintaining a relationship on climate with China is about the fate and future of this planet.”

Newsom has only taken one international trip in his official capacity as governor, to El Salvador a few months after his inauguration in 2019. He has also traveled to Mexico and Central and South America for vacations.

His experience on a global stage, however, goes back much further to his time as San Francisco mayor. In 2005, he traveled to Shanghai with the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), seeking to expand trade opportunities, and he made several additional trips as mayor.

Darlene Chiu-Bryant, a former adviser to Newsom who accompanied him on the 2005 trip, said it was clear back then that he was focused on a positive business relationship with China, not points of controversy.

Chiu-Bryant now leads GlobalSF, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding foreign investment. She said Newsom’s approach reflects his sensibility as a lifelong San Franciscan. About a fifth of San Francisco residents are Chinese American — the highest concentration in any major U.S. city. It’s also home to the oldest Chinatown in the country, founded by immigrant laborers and merchants during the Gold Rush.

Newsom, as a child growing up in the city, walked through that Chinatown every morning on his way to Catholic school, she said. Chiu-Bryant said such experiences led Newsom to view China as more partner than rival.

“For him, it’s always been, ‘We live in the global world,’” she said. “He’s always been open, he’s always been collaborative.”

Debra Kahn and Christopher Cadelago contributed.

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