Biden’s nominee for China envoy stresses need for diplomacy with rival

Career diplomat Nick Burns criticised Beijing during his confirmation hearing before the Senate

US ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns attends a hearing to examine his nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington. AP
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President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as the US ambassador to China strongly criticised Beijing during his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, highlighting Washington's continued tough line on its Pacific rival.

During his opening testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who has served in high-profile positions across Democratic and Republican administrations, described China as an “aggressor”.

Mr Burns, however, called for diplomacy to temper the ever-increasing tension between the US and China.

“Beijing has been an aggressor against India along their Himalayan border, against Vietnam, the Philippines and others in the South China Sea, against Japan in the East China Sea,” Mr Burns said.

“And Beijing has launched an intimidation campaign against Australia and even more recently Lithuania.”

He also said Beijing must stop its clampdown in Hong Kong and its “bullying of Taiwan".

China has flown an unprecedented number of military flights near Taiwan in recent weeks. Beijing also suspended direct rail freight to Lithuania in August after the Baltic country opened a Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius.

“The Biden administration as well is surely right to seek effective channels of communication with Beijing to manage this competition responsibility, to mitigate the risks of accidental conflict and above all to maintain the peace,” Mr Burns said.

“The United States has to proceed from a position of strength and pursue intense diplomacy in all these matters.”

Mr Burns’s rhetoric on Beijing satisfied Democrats and Republicans alike during his hearing, mirroring the current appetite in Washington for policies that are tough on China.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday also advanced a China sanctions bill, which would place sanctions on senior Chinese officials involved in Beijing’s military activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The sanctions would also extend to officials implicated in Chinese military actions in the East China Sea “administered by Japan or the Republic of Korea".

The widespread praise Mr Burns received from both parties on the committee suggests that he will face little opposition and an easy confirmation vote in the Senate to assume the ambassadorship.

Mr Burns began his foreign service career at the US embassy in Egypt and then the consulate in Jerusalem in the 1980s.

He served as the director for Soviet affairs under former president George HW Bush and then as former president Bill Clinton’s adviser on Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia affairs.

After serving as the US ambassador to Greece, Mr Burns became the US permanent representative to Nato, where he sold the alliance on the US invasion of Iraq before becoming under secretary of state for political affairs.

Mr Burns left the State Department in 2008 and became a professor of international politics at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government while taking on several outside consulting roles.

Updated: October 20, 2021, 4:34 PM