Apr 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden close to picking Nick Burns as China ambassador

Former ambasador Nicholas Burns is seen testifying to Congress.

Nicholas Burns. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, is in the final stages of vetting to serve as President Biden’s ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Across the administration, there's a consensus the U.S. relationship with China will be the most critical — and consequential — of Biden's presidency. From trade to Taiwan, the stakes are high. Burns could be among the first batch of diplomatic nominees announced in the coming weeks.

  • Biden set the table for those nominations Thursday, drawing from the State Department Foreign Service as he named nine career diplomats for postings from Somalia to Senegal.
  • The Foreign Service traditionally supplies 70% of the roughly 190 nominees, and naming career appointees first should reduce internal complaints about political appointments.
  • The remaining spots, typically in coveted Western European capitals and crucial Asian countries, are usually reserved for well-heeled donors, former politicians or policy experts.

Between the lines: Burns is a Harvard University professor and former State Department spokesman who capped his Foreign Service career by serving as undersecretary of state for political affairs for President George W. Bush.

  • By sending him to Beijing, Biden would be indicating a preference for a seasoned diplomat instead of a high-wattage politician.
  • The last four U.S. ambassadors to China have all had experience in retail politics, winning elections statewide, either as a governor or senator.
  • Burn's potential nomination was reported by Bloomberg in February. A final decision by the president has not been made.

The intrigue: Biden officials also have considered former U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky for the post.

  • While not a politician, Barshefsky won Senate confirmation, served in President Clinton’s Cabinet and negotiated with the Chinese on their entry into the World Trade Organization.

Go deeper: Biden officials have been urged to nominate a former elected official for Beijing, under the theory the Chinese prefer to deal with a big name who can pick up the phone, cut through the bureaucracy and speak to the president directly.

  • “He needs to appoint a ‘wow-wow’ person to show the world the importance of this relationship,” said former Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who served as Obama’s second China ambassador.
  • “It’s also critical that the person is empowered to negotiate on the president’s behalf,” he said. “The ambassadors should not just be a person to deliver messages.”

The bottom line: With Biden’s National Security Council and State Department intensely focused on China, the next ambassador’s job could be more about implementing policy instead of creating it.

  • In addition to working with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Biden’s China envoy will also have to coordinate with former Secretary of State John Kerry on climate change.
  • The ambassador also will have to contend with Kurt Campbell, a brash former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs who is now serving in a newly created “Asia czar” role on the National Security Council.
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