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

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FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2008, file photo, Nicholas Burns announces his retirement at the State Department in Washington. President Joe Biden is facing… FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2008, file photo, Nicholas Burns announces his retirement at the State Department in Washington. President Joe Biden is facing a fresh challenge to his oft-repeated commitment to diversity in his administration: assembling a diplomatic corps that gives a nod to key political allies and donors while staying true to a campaign pledge to appoint ambassadors who look like America. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

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

Biden nominates Burns as ambassador to China, one month after Qin Gang arrived for post

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Nicholas Burns Photo:CFP

US President Joe Biden formally nominated veteran US diplomat Nicholas Burns to serve as the next US ambassador to China, one month after China’s new ambassador to the US Qin Gang arrived in Washington. The time lag, according to some analysts, partially exposes the Biden administration’s troubled ability in handling relationship with China.By tapping Burns, a career diplomat and a possible loyal enforcer of White House policies toward China, Biden hopes it will play a positive role in managing discrepancies and avoid misunderstandings between the world’s two major powers.As the two countries struggle to amend fraught ties, no matter who serves as the next US ambassador to China, his capacity of changing the seriously strained bilateral relationship is limited, the analysts cautioned.The White House 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, to be new ambassador to Japan.Although information of Burns’ nomination has been circulating since April, it was formalized only one month after Chinese ambassador to the US Qin Gang arrived in Washington to serve as the country’s top envoy there last month.Chinese analysts and other major US allies said that its delayed appointment of ambassador to China, a post that remained vacant for 10 months, suggests the Biden administration, bogged down by a range of domestic and international crises, has a ‘’troubled ability’’ in dealing with the relationship with China.“Since Qin’s arrival in Washington in late July, the new US ambassador to China should be arriving at the end of August or the beginning of September, which is a principle of reciprocity,” Li Haidong, professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times, noting that if the nomination of Burns is approved, it will play a positive role on bilateral relation.As the US Congress heads into its summer recess till the end of August, it is likely that some of Biden’s nominees won’t be confirmed by the US Senate very soon.The foreign policy expert said that ambassadors serve as a bridge for both countries, President Biden’s new nomination, although late, demonstrates that the White House attaches importance on high-level communication with Beijing.Tapping Burns doesn’t necessary indicate that the ice between China and US is thawing, said Zhang Tengjun, an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies. He said that the late nomination of Burns maybe Biden’s attempt to show that he is “not in a rush” on his China policy, not a gesture of softening conflicts.Burns served as US ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and undersecretary of state for political affairs during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush, and as US ambassador to Greece under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. He currently teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.Reuters pointed out that the choice of Burns marks a shift for the role of the ambassador to Beijing, the ranks of which over the past decade have been filled by politicians, not seasoned diplomats.Lü Xiang, a research fellow on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, pointed out that it is indeed a rare choice for the US to appoint a veteran diplomat as ambassador to major powers. Yet Burns is a choice that appears acceptable for the Democrats and Republicans, as he worked for both the Clinton and Bush administration. Thus, his nomination won’t be severely challenged by the Senate, and Burns is well acquainted to security and diplomatic teams of the current administration.Li, who has heard Burns’ speech in the US, noted that although Burns has never been in charge of China-related affairs specifically, he is “very familiar with China issues since he served as undersecretary of state for political affairs.““His opinions on China are relatively balanced, not as extreme and stiff as the diplomats from the previous Trump administration, such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,” Li noted.Zhang believes that by nominating Burns, Biden hopes to utilize his abundant diplomatic experience, and on the other hand, count on Burns to be a loyal enforcer and implement Biden’s polices on China.The analysts also pointed out that Burns’ generally tough attitude toward China is also in line with the Biden administration, believing him to be a trusted choice for the US president.In a speech in Australia in October 2019, Burns stated that the US and its allies needed to ’limit’ and ‘blunt’ Chinese assertiveness. He also openly criticized the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) during an April online meeting.Observers agreed that under current turbulent bilateral relationship between China and the US, the role of US ambassador to China is limited.Lü told the Global Times that as a career diplomat, Burns will be less self-motivated to explore opportunities at the current delicate and complex moment in China-US relationship. He will stick to the Biden administration’s policy guideline on China.“Now, China-US relations are delicate, complex and thorny. As an implementer of the country’s policy rather than a decision-maker, the US ambassador’s role in China is limited. It is better for the ambassador to wait for a higher level US official to ‘set the tone’ for him,” Lü told the Global Times previously.Li expects Burns to get himself familiar with China’s affairs as soon as possible if he takes office, and give timely feedback to Washington based on his understanding, at the same time.“Having an ambassador sitting in Beijing will help manage discrepancies and avoid more misunderstandings between the world’s two largest economies. However, if the Biden administration refuses to change its containment policy and does not tone down its anti-China rhetoric, what the new ambassador could do is limited,” said Li.

The significance of Biden picking Burns for China ambassador

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