The Senate confirmed Nicholas Burns as U.S. ambassador to China, a front-line diplomatic post in President Joe Biden’s administration as the two countries ramp up economic and strategic competition globally.
Burns, 65, a career diplomat who has served under Democratic and Republican presidents, is viewed as a calm, savvy professional in a city riven by partisan politics. His nomination was approved 75-18 but only after Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut reached a deal on a bill banning imports from China’s Xinjiang region.
“Ambassador Burns is an outstanding public servant, one of the nation’s best, and I am pleased to support his nomination as the next ambassador to China,” said New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, ahead of the vote.
Burns’ confirmation was expected to be followed by positive votes for two other State Department nominees Murphy said were key to implementing Rubio’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act: Ramin Toloui, to oversee economic and business affairs, and Rashad Hussain, for ambassador at large for international religious freedom. Rubio had said he would lift his hold on Burns if the Uyghur bill passed.
Many other diplomatic posts remain vacant almost a year into Biden’s administration, with Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, withholding support for a number of them in the evenly divided Senate to pursue policy demands.
Almost 90 nominees for top State Department jobs and ambassador posts are currently under consideration by the Senate, according to the Partnership for Public Service. The body has confirmed 32 nominees so far, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and some of his top deputies.
Burns drew sharp lines with Beijing during his confirmation hearing earlier this year over its “aggressive” actions in the Indo-Pacific but said “American strength” gives the U.S. key advantages in the relationship between the world’s two largest economies.
Burns, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to NATO and Greece, said China has been the aggressor in its relationship with Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines. He also said he’s skeptical about Chinese intentions on issues including 5G technology.
“Our responsibility is to make Taiwan a tough nut to crack,” Burns said, while rejecting a suggestion that the U.S. ditch its long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which doesn’t say whether the U.S. would intervene in an invasion of the self-ruled island.
Burns currently serves as a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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