US Senate approves Biden pick Nicholas Burns as China envoy after delay

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US Senate on Thursday (Dec 16) confirmed veteran diplomat Nicholas Burns as ambassador to Beijing, filling a position vacant for more than a year despite Washington’s growing focus on China.

The Senate reached the key 50-vote threshold to approve Burns in an ongoing confirmation that took place after Senator Marco Rubio lifted his objections.

Burns, a former US ambassador to Greece and NATO, at his Senate hearing in October called China an “aggressor” in the region and vowed to “compete vigorously”, while also seeking cooperation on areas such as climate change.

President Joe Biden nominated Burns in August, more than half a year into his term. 

Rubio held up the nomination as he accused Burns of not being tough enough and not being clear on past dealings with China.

Rubio allowed the vote, while also voting against Burns, after prolonged negotiations brought bipartisan support and passage earlier on Thursday of an act to ban virtually all imports from China’s northeastern region Xinjiang due to concerns of forced labor by the Uyghur minority. 

Democrats argued that the United States needed an ambassador in Beijing to implement the law, and Burns largely enjoyed support from a number of other Republicans after his long record in government. 

“If you’re looking for a bipartisan person to put in a position, this is your guy,” said Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“He’s done an outstanding job, has an outstanding reputation amongst the cadre of ambassadors.”

The 65-year-old served as the State Department’s number three official under former president George W. Bush and as the spokesman of the department under Bill Clinton.  

Burns retired from the Foreign Service in 2008 and became a professor at Harvard University. 

He was an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, accusing the former president of abandoning a longstanding US consensus of standing up for US allies, encouraging democracy and welcoming legal immigration. 

Trump’s ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, resigned in October 2020 to help the Republican president’s campaign against Biden.

A longtime governor of Iowa, Branstad was described as an “old friend” by President Xi Jinping who visited the agricultural state when he was a lower-ranking official. 

Despite Burns’ confirmation, Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voiced alarm that the Senate has not acted on more than 50 diplomatic nominees due to Republican stalling.

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