Dec 16, 2021 - World

Senate confirms Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Senate voted 75-18 on Thursday to confirm Nicholas Burns, a widely respected former career diplomat, as U.S. ambassador to China.

Why it matters: Burns — the first Senate-confirmed ambassador in Beijing in more than 14 months — will inherit the most complex and high-stakes bilateral relationship in the world.

How we got here: Burns' nomination in August drew bipartisan praise and support, but his confirmation was held up last month by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

  • Rubio agreed to release the hold when the Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to ban imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang over forced labor concerns.
  • Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) argued that the U.S. needs Burns at his post in order to effectively implement the bill, which is designed to punish the Chinese government for its genocide of Uyghur Muslims.

The big picture: The Biden administration has defined its approach to China as "competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be."

  • President Biden has directly engaged with Chinese President Xi Jinping in order to set "guardrails" on the relationship, seeking to prevent "stiff competition" from spiraling into conflict.
  • Burns, a Harvard professor and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in his confirmation hearing that China poses "the greatest threat to the security of our country and the democratic world" in the 21st century.
  • But he stressed that China is "not all-powerful" and that the U.S. retains "substantial" advantages over the rising superpower — most notably its alliances.

What to watch: The Senate has a backlog of dozens of ambassador and State Department nominees due to blockades by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing to confirm more than 20 of those nominees in the next few days, taking up valuable floor time and preventing senators from leaving for the holiday recess.

Go deeper: Highlights from Burns' confirmation hearing

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