In shift, Biden taps career diplomat, not politician, for ambassador to China

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Nicholas Burns, U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs, gestures during a news conference at the end of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) ministerial meeting in Madrid November 30, 2007. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (Reuters) - President Joe Biden plans to nominate veteran U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns to serve as U.S. ambassador to China, the White House said on Friday, signaling the administration may be looking for the envoy to play a more central role in the increasingly fractious relations between the two global rivals.

The choice of Burns, a retired career foreign service officer who served as under secretary of state between 2005 and 2008, marks a shift for the role of the ambassador to Beijing, the ranks of which over the past decade have been filled by former politicians, not seasoned diplomats.

If confirmed by the Senate, Burns would head to China as the two countries’ ties are at their lowest point in decades, and fill a post left vacant since October, after former President Donald Trump’s envoy to China, Terry Branstad, stepped down.

The United States and China, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies, are at odds over issues across the board, including trade, technology, the coronavirus, Taiwan, and Chinese military activities in the disputed South China Sea, with each accusing the other of deliberately provocative behavior.

A new headache Burns would have to deal with is fallout from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Kabul, which has raised questions about the Biden administration’s ability to swiftly shift focus to the Indo-Pacific region and countering China. read more

China has not officially recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new rulers, but its foreign minister, Wang Yi, last month hosted Mullah Baradar, chief of the group’s political office, and has said the world should guide and support the country as it transitions to a new government instead of putting more pressure on it. read more


The White House on Friday also announced Biden’s intent to nominate Rahm Emanuel, a former U.S. lawmaker who served as chief of staff to former President Barack Obama and as mayor of Chicago, to be ambassador to Japan, a U.S. ally increasingly at odds with Beijing. read more

Burns said he looked forward to returning to public service, if confirmed by the Senate, and working on “the strategic competition between the U.S. and the PRC (People’s Republic of China), as well as other difficult and complex challenges we face at this critical juncture in our relationship.”

While Burns is not considered a China policy specialist, neither were the previous four U.S. ambassadors to Beijing.

He does have close ties to Biden, though, having served as an adviser to his election campaign, and has worked closely over the years with some of the president’s most trusted advisers, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Former Republican President George W. Bush appointed Burns as under secretary for political affairs, historically the State Department’s third-ranking official, with global responsibilities, where he served until 2008.

Evan Medeiros, an Asia specialist in the Obama administration now at Georgetown University, said the choice of Burns indicated Biden sought a new model of communication with Beijing at a time when regular high-level dialogues have atrophied in the face of increasingly ideological competition.

“What you’re saying is we need a work horse, not a show horse,” he said. “We want our ambassador to be among the key players in the relationship, and we need somebody who understands great power politics.”

Trump had named Branstad, hoping the former Iowa governor could leverage ties with Chinese officials – including Xi Jinping before he became China’s top leader – to help navigate trade tensions. But the two sides plunged headlong into an unprecedented trade war anyway.

As tensions between Beijing and Washington have escalated in recent years, the China-based role of the U.S. ambassador has been increasingly constrained, particularly as Beijing has sought to curtail the ambassador’s engagement with ordinary people.

With the Biden administration indicating a reluctance to return to the regular, structured, high-level dialogue Beijing has sought, some analysts say it is possible the ambassador will take on a more pivotal role as a result.

“The U.S. ambassador in Beijing could return to serving as both a messenger to and a sounding board for Chinese officials,” said James Green, a former U.S. official who served multiple tours at the Beijing embassy.

He said the Biden administration would benefit from Burns’ “intimate understanding of the foreign policy bureaucracy” as well as a “clarity of message” to Beijing given his time as State Department spokesman in the mid-1990s.

Burns has also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO and to Greece. After retiring from the Foreign Service, he worked with the Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm, and became a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Reporting by Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom in Washington; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal Editing by Eric Beech, Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

President Biden Announces His Intent to Nominate Three Individuals to Serve as Ambassadors

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WASHINGTON – Today, President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate the following three individuals to serve as U.S. ambassadors:

Michael Battle, Nominee for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United Republic of Tanzania

R. Nicholas Burns, Nominee for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the People’s Republic of China

Rahm Emanuel, Nominee for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Japan

Michael Battle, Nominee for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United Republic of Tanzania

Dr. Michael Battle had a distinguished career of public service spanning four decades as a diplomat, in academia, in the faith community and as a military chaplain. Battle was Executive Vice President/Provost at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Prior to that, he served as a Senior Advisor to the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State for the U.S. Africa Leader’s Summit in 2014. He also was the United States Representative to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Earlier in his career Battle’s positions included service as the President of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia and chair of The Robert W. Woodruff Library of The Atlanta University. Additionally, he served for 20 years as a Chaplain in the United States Army Reserve, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1997. Battle received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Trinity College, a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Howard University.

R. Nicholas Burns, Nominee for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the People’s Republic of China

Ambassador (ret.) Nicholas Burns, a respected former career member of the Foreign Service, currently serves as Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is also Executive Director of the Aspen Strategy Group and Security Forum and Senior Counselor at the Cohen Group. During his State Department career, Burns served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador to NATO and to Greece, State Department Spokesman, and on the National Security Council staff on Soviet and Russian Affairs. As Under Secretary, he worked with the Chinese government on issues as diverse as Afghanistan, United Nations Sanctions against Iran, North Korea ,and U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific. At the Aspen Strategy Group, he organized a policy dialogue with the Chinese government’s Central Party School. He has taught, written, and spoken on current U.S.-China relations. Burns earned his B.A. degree from Boston College and an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His numerous awards include a Presidential Distinguished Service Award and the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award. He speaks fluent French and has familiarity with Arabic and Greek.

Rahm Emanuel, Nominee for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Japan

Rahm Emanuel, former Mayor of the City of Chicago and White House Chief of Staff to President Obama, has had a distinguished career in public service. As Mayor, he oversaw increased economic development that revitalized the city and helped solidify its status as a global hub of culture and commerce. He ensured Chicago was a leader on the global stage, hosting the 2012 NATO summit, leading the continent in foreign direct investment for six consecutive years, convening mayors worldwide to commit to the Chicago Climate Charter of 2017 and helping establish the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Mayors Forum on Global Cities. He previously served as Chief of Staff to President Obama, where he helped secure the passage of landmark legislation, including Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act, and advised President Obama on all key national security decisions during the President’s first two years. From 2003 to 2009, Mr. Emanuel served in the U.S. House of Representatives where he held a number of leadership positions. Mr. Emanuel also served President Clinton as Assistant to the President for Political Affairs and Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy. He is currently national chair of the Advisory Council of Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man (BAM) mentoring program. He graduated with a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Northwestern University.

Biden to nominate Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China, Rahm Emanuel to Japan

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Friday his intent to nominate career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns as his ambassador to China.

The president also announced that former two-term mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel will be nominated as his ambassador to Japan.

Both announcements were widely anticipated, and once they are formally nominated, both Burns and Emanuel are expected to be confirmed by the Senate.

Burns is one of America’s most experienced and well-regarded diplomats, having served both Republicans and Democrats for more than 25 years. He was ambassador to Greece in the Clinton administration, ambassador to NATO in the George W. Bush administration, and undersecretary of State for political affairs from 2005 to 2008.

As the Biden administration makes economic and geopolitical competition with China the cornerstone of its broader foreign policy, Burns, as ambassador, would be the tip of the spear.

He would likely be charged with the dual task of executing policies that are deeply unpopular with his Chinese hosts while maintaining a cordial working relationship.

The White House has signaled that it intends to pursue a relationship with Beijing that somewhat mirrors Washington’s strategy toward the Kremlin.

While Russia and the United States are adversaries on nearly every front, senior diplomats in both countries maintain dedicated areas of cooperation on issues where it is in their mutual interest to cooperate, such as nuclear arms control.