Oct 20, 2021 - World

The China whisperer

U.S. ambassadorial nominee Nick Burns is seen addressing an audience.

Nick Burns. Photo: Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

President Biden's nominee for ambassador to China will face aggressive questioning Wednesday about the most important, and potentially perilous, bilateral relationship in the world.

Why it matters: While Nick Burns is an experienced diplomat with support on both sides of the aisle, lawmakers want to use his confirmation hearing to force the administration into some tough positions on China.

  • Both Republicans and Democrats have called on the president to shore up support for Taiwan following a record number of Chinese military flybys. Some want an explicit commitment to come to the island's defense should China invade.
  • Burns also faces scrutiny over his early-pandemic criticism of the lab-leak theory, as Republicans push Biden to hold China accountable for blocking a full international investigation of COVID-19's origins.
  • Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) continue to stall even the most qualified State Department nominees over the administration's approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and its handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

What they're saying: Expect Republicans to press Burns about how much the U.S. should sacrifice to get China to support its climate goals, especially ahead of the crucial UN climate summit in Scotland beginning Oct. 31.

  • If Burns and the administration prioritize getting a climate deal with China over other issues related to anti-competition, that would be "a terrible mistake," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and China hawk, told Axios.
  • Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the committee and the most hawkish Democrat on China, had high praise for Biden’s nominee: “Nick Burns is the probably the most incredibly talented career diplomat that we could send to one of the most difficult, challenging places in the world, which is China.”
  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told Axios: “There's gonna be questions about this new Financial Times article that has just come out, with China and the hypersonic weaponry.”
  • Senate Republican aides told Axios they also expect Burns to be pressed on how the Biden administration plans to address China doing a huge amount of business with Iran, and evading U.S. sanctions, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports.

Background: Burns is currently executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group and a professor at Harvard Kennedy School. He's a widely respected former career diplomat who's served in both Republican and Democratic administrations for over three decades.

  • If he's confirmed, Biden will look to Burns to help defrost lower-level talks, in which Chinese officials have snubbed and lectured top Biden aides.
  • He'll ultimately be the point man for the president's top priority for the relationship: preventing "intense competition" from spiraling into outright conflict.
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