Nominee for US ambassador to China wins committee approval, heads to full Senate vote

·4-min read

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday in favour of Nicholas Burns as the next US ambassador to China, sending the long-time diplomat’s nomination to the full Senate for his approval.

Only one senator on the 22-member committee, Bill Hagerty, opposed the nomination. Hagerty, Republican of Tennessee, had criticised Burns for disagreeing with his suggestion that the US ought to end its long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the issue of military intervention in the Taiwan Strait.

Hagerty had no support from other committee members. Senator James Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the committee, said there would be “no better ambassador as far as being able to represent the US interests”, citing Burns’ experience and past comments in support of Taiwan.

The Burns nomination was approved on Wednesday along with several other ambassadorial nominations, including that of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for envoy to Japan. Two Democratic senators, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, objected to Emanuel’s nomination, citing his handling of the 2014 killing of a black teenager by a white Chicago police officer.

Other envoys approved on Wednesday were those for Singapore, Spain, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Despite Democratic opposition to his nomination, Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, won the approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as US ambassador to Japan. Photo: Getty Images via TNS
Despite Democratic opposition to his nomination, Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, won the approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as US ambassador to Japan. Photo: Getty Images via TNS

It is not yet clear when the full Senate will vote on the nominations, but Senator Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is chairman of the committee, said he hoped “we can move them on the floor swiftly”.

“The slate of nominees that we moved today is representative of the quality of Biden administration nominations over all – individuals who are highly qualified [and who] I believe will be superb representatives of the United States,” Menendez said.

The Burns nomination comes at a busy time for Congress, with lawmakers consumed by slow-moving negotiations over US President Joe Biden’s two big domestic spending bills.

US aims to ease semiconductor crunch by working with allies: official

The bottleneck has prompted some lawmakers to transfer stalled China-related legislation into the must-pass defence policy bill as a way to advance them.

Even amid a bitterly divided Congress, though, Burns has received widespread support from both parties since the Biden administration announced his nomination in August.

The 65-year-old career diplomat served as US ambassador to Nato under George W Bush, and later as a foreign policy adviser to then-Secretary of State John Kerry during the Barack Obama administration.

Burns has taken a tough line against China in the weeks since his nomination, telling senators last month that Beijing was Washington’s “most dangerous competitor” and is carrying out human rights abuses across China, including “genocide” in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

During an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Wednesday, Burns referred to an increasingly emboldened China and Russia as he highlighted “anti-democratic forces around the world” that posed challenges to the US.

Biden, Burns said, had “made it a signature issue for his administration to unite the democratic world and unite our allies and partners in common cause”.

Chinese military holds live-fire drills in East China Sea amid Taiwan tension

Even as the Biden administration has identified China as Washington’s most critical relationship, the US has gone without an envoy in Beijing for more than nine months.

By contrast, the previous US ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, was confirmed just four months into the Trump administration.

Numerous other foreign policy nominations languish in the Senate, as some Republicans have blocked attempts by Democrats to move them by unanimous consent, a process that lets lawmakers pass measures without the need for time-consuming votes.

Terry Branstad, the previous US ambassador to China, was confirmed four months into the Donald Trump administration. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS
Terry Branstad, the previous US ambassador to China, was confirmed four months into the Donald Trump administration. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS

“We are in a competition with China, if you have not noticed,” Merkley told other committee members on Wednesday.

The Senate’s failure to advance nominations provided grist to Beijing’s arguments that US democracy was dysfunctional, said Merkley, adding: “They might put as a poster child this committee right now that has only been able to confirm and pass on five ambassadors in 10 months.”

Burns has not yet taken up the ambassador post, but Beijing has already indicated an unfavourable opinion of him.

After Burns called for a mix of competition and cooperation with China during his October confirmation hearing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that his remarks reflected a “Cold War and zero-sum mentality”, and accused Burns of seeking to meddle in China’s internal affairs.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Nominee for US ambassador to China wins committee approval, heads to full Senate vote first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting