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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.

Go deeper

JPMorgan CEO walks back joke about Chinese Communist Party

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon in Paris in June 2021. Photo: Michel Euler/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon walked back a recent critique of the Chinese Communist Party on Wednesday, saying he regrets joking that the bank will outlast the party in China.

Driving the news: Speaking at the Boston College Chief Executives Club Tuesday, Dimon noted that JPMorgan's Chinese operations and the CCP were both celebrating their 100th year anniversary in 2021 and said he would bet that the bank would outlive the party, according to Bloomberg.

Mar 18, 2020 - World

Timeline: The early days of China's coronavirus outbreak and cover-up

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios Photos: Stringer/Getty Images, Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images, Peng/Xinhua via Getty via Getty Images

Axios has compiled a timeline of the earliest weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in China, highlighting when the cover-up started and ended — and showing how, during that time, the virus already started spreading around the world, including to the United States.

Why it matters: A study published in March indicated that if Chinese authorities had acted three weeks earlier than they did, the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95% and its geographic spread limited.

Nov 24, 2021 - World

U.S. unveils invitation list for Biden's "Summit for Democracy"

Expand chart
Data: State Department. Axios Visuals.

Taiwan is among the 110 delegations invited to President Biden's "Summit for Democracy" next month, according to a list released by the State Department on Tuesday night.

Why it matters: Taiwan's inclusion is sure to infuriate the Chinese government, which views the self-governing island as a breakaway territory and opposes any attempts to legitimize it on the international stage.