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A new deal between the United States and China to cut emissions, announced in the closing days of the COP26 climate conference, has renewed hope that the two countries can co-operate where it matters, even as deep divides remain in one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.

Announced by climate envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua in a joint press conference Wednesday, the deal will see Washington and Beijing ramp up co-operation in tackling climate change, including cutting methane emissions, phasing out coal consumption and ending illegal deforestation.

“In the area of climate change, there is more agreement between the US and China than divergence, making it an area with huge potential for our co-operation,” said Mr. Xie, a top Chinese politician whose multiple meetings with Mr. Kerry this year have been among the highest-level between U.S. and Chinese officials.

“As two major powers, both China and the U.S. shoulder international responsibilities and obligations. We need to think big.”

For his part, Mr. Kerry said that “the U.S. and China have no shortage of differences, but on climate, co-operation is the only way to get things done.”

COP26 draft deal calls for stronger carbon cutting targets by end of 2022

Both men have made similar comments in the past, but faced intense skepticism about whether they could actually deliver as relations between Washington and Beijing continued to plumb new depths in the wake of a break that began during the administration of president Donald Trump.

This had led some observers to call on Washington to scale back criticism of Beijing on issues such as Xinjiang – where China has been accused of widespread human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities – Hong Kong and Taiwan, for fear of hampering global efforts to stave off climate disaster.

Speaking to reporters in Glasgow, where the COP26 summit is being held, Mr. Kerry said that Washington has not sidelined these issues, “but that’s not my lane here.”

“My job is to be the climate guy and stay focused on trying to move the climate agenda forward,” he said.

Frans Timmermans, the European Union’s climate policy chief, said the U.S.-China agreement could boost COP negotiations among all parties.

“It’s really encouraging to see that those countries that were at odds in so many areas have found common ground on what is the biggest challenge humanity faces today,” he told Reuters. “And it certainly helps us here at COP to come to an agreement.”

Jennifer Morgan, executive director for Greenpeace International, said a reset of the U.S.-China relationship “on this crucial issue is overdue”.

“The climate crisis will only be solved if the U.S. and China move toward the same goal of bringing emissions in line with a 1.5 C trajectory as a matter of urgency,” she said.

“If this reset is going to turn into a genuine breakthrough that builds confidence around the world, then they need to step up their level of ambition and their commitment to implementation. And that needs to start in Glasgow, where every country should be using the last two days of these talks to get the deal the world needs.”

There are signs that the breakthrough on climate could be the start of a wider thaw in U.S.-China relations, even as Washington remains outwardly committed to challenging Beijing on a host of issues, not just Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also the South China Sea, trade and intellectual property.

In a letter to the 2021 gala dinner of the National Committee on US-China Relations in Washington on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said relations were “at a critical historical juncture.”

“Both countries will gain from co-operation and lose from confrontation. Co-operation is the only right choice,” he said, according to China’s ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang.

“China stands ready to work with the United States to enhance exchanges and co-operation across the board, jointly address regional and international issues as well as global challenges.”

In a letter read out at the same event, the honorary chairs of which were former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, current U.S. leader Joe Biden praised the National Committee for “helping foster mutual understanding and constructive conversation to help find common ground.”

Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden are expected to hold a video-summit – the first such meeting between the two leaders since the U.S. President took office – sometime next week. Sources are telling Reuters that it will be Monday, but an official date has yet to be announced. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that the two sides were “in close communication over the specific arrangement for the leaders’ summit.”

The talk with Mr. Biden will come after Mr. Xi wraps up a meeting of top Communist Party officials in Beijing this week, where they agreed to text of a new resolution on party history, a key document that will shape Chinese politics for decades to come.

As of Thursday morning, the text of the document has yet to be revealed, but its passage is expected to further shore up Mr. Xi’s absolute control over the party and country, potentially giving him space to ease tensions with the U.S. that have at times been used to rally nationalist support around him.

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