fb-pixel Skip to main content

Biden nominates Harvard’s Nicholas Burns as US ambassador to China

Nicholas Burns.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

(Bloomberg) -- The White House announced nominees for ambassadorships to China and Japan as President Joe Biden recalibrates the U.S. presence in Asia after the Trump years.

Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns is his choice to lead the embassy in Beijing, while Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be nominated as ambassador to Japan, the White House announced Friday.

The nominations, which require Senate confirmation, come as the Biden administration seeks to enlist allies to vie with China on issues ranging from the production of semiconductors to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The president has predicted “extreme competition” with the Asian superpower in the years to come.


The Biden administration was looking for someone with deep political ties or diplomatic experience for the crucial China posting, a person familiar with the matter said before the nominations were announced.

The ambassador will act as a critical bridge between the world’s two largest economies after the Biden administration indicated it plans to maintain former President Donald Trump’s tough stance toward Beijing while also allowing for possible cooperation on issues such as climate change.

Emanuel’s nomination is likely to be the more contentious of the two. The politically savvy and combative Emanuel, who was White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, has been considered for various administration roles since Biden’s November election victory.

Progressives have raised concerns about his record in the Obama administration, particularly his opposition to a larger stimulus bill in 2009 and what they see as an unwillingness to work with the left. Some groups, including the NAACP, have said that his handling of the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago should disqualify him from the Biden administration.

He was said to be a contender for transportation secretary, a position that went to Pete Buttigieg.


Burns’ nomination is not likely to generate opposition. He held various positions in the U.S. government for 27 years and is now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. Burns was the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005 and ambassador to Greece from 1997 to 2001.

Last year, he took to Twitter to castigate then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo for speaking to the Republican National Convention while on a taxpayer-funded trip to Israel.

Over the years, ambassadors to Beijing have included career diplomats such as Winston Lord as well as political figures such as former Washington State Governor Gary Locke and former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad. Among the recent ambassadors to Japan is Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy.