Harvard Professor Nicholas Burns has been chosen by President Joe Biden to be the U.S. ambassador to China, according to a White House statement on August 20. The White House noted that Burns had been a career diplomat, serving as ambassador to NATO, State Department spokesman, and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

"As Under Secretary, he worked with the Chinese government on issues as diverse as Afghanistan, United Nations Sanctions against Iran, North Korea, and U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific," the statement said. It noted that Burns was currently on the faculty of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

The statement also said that former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would be nominated ambassador to Japan. The statement can be read in its entirety at www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room. Burns and Emanuel must have their nominations confirmed by the Senate.

No US ambassador in Beijing since October 2020

CNN noted that most modern American presidents had been more eager than Biden to appoint ambassadors. The network said that so far Ken Salazar, Biden's ambassador to Mexico, was the only one of the Biden Administration's ambassadorial nominees to be confirmed by the Senate.

Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, noted that the U.S. had not had an ambassador in Beijing since the departure of Terry Branstad in October 2020.

Lü Xiang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the newspaper that relations between the U.S. and China were "sensitive, complex and thorny." He added that Biden apparently wanted to speak directly to Beijing through high-level State Department officials in Washington than through diplomatic representatives in Beijing.

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Lü was quoted by the newspaper as saying "the U.S. ambassador's role in China is quite limited" because an ambassador was "an implementer of the country's policy rather than a decision-maker." Another academic, Li Haidong of China Foreign Affairs University told Global Times that negotiating compromises with China would be too difficult for Biden, so the American leadership was trying to unite other countries against China.

Reuters noted that, unlike recent U.S. ambassadors to China, Burns had been a professional diplomat rather than an elected official. Branstad had been governor of Iowa before being picked by Donald Trump to serve in Beijing, the news service recalled. Reuters pointed out that Burns had advised Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign.

'A workhorse, not a show horse'

Reuters quoted Evan Medeiros of Georgetown University as referring to Burns as "somebody who understands great power politics" and "a workhorse, not a show horse." The White House statement mentioned that Burns had received the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award and the Presidential Distinguished Service Award.

Former President Bill Clinton expressed his support for the nominations of Burns and Emanuel on Twitter.

Clinton called both men "smart decision-makers, experienced leaders and dedicated public servants."

Opposition to Rahm Emanuel from progressive Democrats

The White House announcement of the pending nominations noted that Emanuel had served President Barack Obama as Chief of Staff during the first two years of the Obama Administration. The White House recalled that, as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel "oversaw increased economic development that revitalized the city and helped solidify its status as a global hub of culture and commerce."

The Chicago Tribune noted that news of Emanuel's nomination as ambassador to Japan had drawn criticism from members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who remembered incidents of police violence against African Americans - especially the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald - during Emanuel's eight years as mayor.

Democrat Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri tweeted her opposition to Biden's nomination of Emanuel. She said, "Rahm Emanuel covered up the murder of Laquan McDonald. He must be disqualified from ever holding an appointed position in any administration."

The White House statement noted that Burns was currently executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group. In this capacity, Burns had "organized a policy dialogue with the Chinese government’s Central Party School," the White House recalled, adding that Burns spoke French fluently as well as some Arabic and Greek.