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US ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns attends a hearing to examine his nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. Photo: AP

US ambassador to China nominee takes tough line on Beijing, cites ‘genocide in Xinjiang’ and need to support Taiwan

  • Nicholas Burns says China has weaknesses that the US can use to its advantage, including demographics and the growing global pushback over its behaviour
  • But he hopes the two powers will find common ground on climate change, global health and nuclear non-proliferation
US President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to China took a tough line towards the Asian giant at a confirmation hearing on Wednesday, citing its “genocide in Xinjiang” and the need to better support Taiwan and countries such as Australia and Lithuania subjected to “bullying” and “intimidation campaigns”.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, career diplomat Nicholas Burns added that China had weaknesses that the United States could use to its advantage, including demographics and the growing global pushback over its behaviour.

“China is not an Olympian power … They have enormous strengths. They have very few friends. They have no real allies,” said Burns, 65, contrasting that with Washington’s 29 allies and numerous treaty partners.

“We’re a strong country. We should be confident, for our values and our interests, and we can stand up to the Chinese. But our allies and partners can help to do that so that there’s real weight and leverage.”


US ambassador to China nominee takes tough line toward Beijing at hearing

US ambassador to China nominee takes tough line toward Beijing at hearing
Burns added, however, that he hoped the two powers could find common ground on climate change, global health and nuclear non-proliferation. He also stressed the importance of better direct communication so the US did not end up “being sleepwalkers into a conflict with China”.

The two-hour hearing underscored Washington’s tough bipartisan view towards China, with senators from both parties voicing shared concern over China’s growing military, political, economic and even cultural footprint.

“If confirmed, you’ll have a monumental task before you,” said New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the committee chairman. “You’ll need to be clear-eyed about Beijing’s intentions and actions, and play a key role in calibrating this administration’s still emerging policy strategy regarding China.”

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Burns, who gave detailed responses to mostly friendly questioning backed by his four decades in diplomacy, said Taiwan remained a central challenge.


The US could not trust China given how Beijing had reneged on the “one nation, two systems” framework for Hong Kong, he said, adding that Washington had “enormous latitude” to deepen its security assistance to Taiwan.

“The administration and Congress together on a bipartisan basis should help Taiwan to maintain a self-defence capability,” Burns told senators, noting flights by 149 Chinese fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone earlier this month. “Our responsibility is to make Taiwan a tough nut to crack, help it increase its asymmetric defences.”

But Burns, a former US ambassador to Nato and Greece, added that the best way to stave off conflict was still to adhere to long-standing Taiwan policy, including the one-China policy.

Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaks during a confirmation hearing for US ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns on Wednesday. Photo: Bloomberg

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Burns’ remarks reflected a “cold war and zero-sum mentality”.

“We oppose defining China-US relations as competition. Even if China and the United States compete in fields such as economics and trade, it should be a healthy competition that you catch up with and improve together,” Wang said on Thursday.

“The affairs of Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong are purely China’s internal affairs, and no foreign forces are allowed to interfere.
“The so-called genocide in Xinjiang is a century-old lie concocted by a few Western anti-China scholars and American politicians. Its real purpose is to suppress and contain China’s development, and the one-China principle is the political foundation of China-US relations. Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory”.

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The hearing on Wednesday came amid a serious administration backlog in putting its ambassadors in place, partly blamed on delay tactics by Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz.


Burns is not expected to face much opposition, with a vote seen as early as next week.

The committee also held hearings on Wednesday for former Barack Obama administration chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to be ambassador to Japan and entrepreneur Jonathan Eric Kaplan for ambassador to Singapore.

Echoing a central part of administration policy, Burns said the best strategy against an authoritarian China was to work more closely with allies and partners. While Japan is “stiffening” and Australia is “rock solid”, a more divided Europe was moving in the right direction in better understanding the threats, he said.


These include alleged intellectual property theft, predatory pricing, state-directed trade and alleged human rights violations in Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang. Up to 1 million Uygurs have reportedly been held in detention camps in far western China; Beijing has denied any human rights violations, claiming these are vocational training centres.

Burns said the administration’s 15 sanctions or executive orders to limit China’s global influence – despite its 275 embassies and consulates around the world compared with 273 for the US – were an effective approach.


US ‘deeply concerned’ despite China denying it recently tested hypersonic nuclear missile

US ‘deeply concerned’ despite China denying it recently tested hypersonic nuclear missile

Burns said pressuring China to adhere to its commitments under the phase one trade deal was the “first order of business on trade” with China.


In late September, the Peterson Institute for International Economics reported that China was on pace to fall about 30 per cent short of US goods it promised to buy in 2021.

Growing coordination between Beijing and Moscow was also a concern, added Burns, currently a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, but that Russia should be wary given its sparse eastern population.

“There are three or 400 million Chinese living below them. Russians are going to have to worry, long term, about economic domination of Russia by China,” he said, as well as Beijing’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons in western China and recent testing of a hypersonic missile.

“What I think has to bother all of us is the attitude of the Chinese government. They don’t believe that they should be constrained in any way, shape or form by arms control,” said Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. “China’s the greatest threat to the security of our country. And the democratic world.”

Chinese observers were surprised by Burns’ unusually strong criticism of China, especially over the ambassador-in-waiting’s use of words such as “genocide” and “aggressor” that would inevitably infuriate Beijing.


Taiwan denounces mainland China for ‘over the top’ flights into island’s air defence zone

Taiwan denounces mainland China for ‘over the top’ flights into island’s air defence zone

Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, said Burns’ tough remarks on China underlined heightened sentiment against China in the US Congress.

“There was a real risk of rejection if he did not act hardline enough. It is in a sense a necessary tactic to win his nomination,” he said.

Zhu said Burns’ comments were in contrast to recent signs of a thaw in bilateral ties following the meeting between top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the positive remarks by US trade representative Katherine Tai.

“Today’s hearing laid bare the danger of bilateral ties when the domestic debate about China in the US has been dominated by the hardline, confrontational anti-Chinese sentiment,” he said.

“Even if both governments want to ease tensions and renew cooperation, they face an unprecedented bipartisan consensus on China among politicians and the public.”

Zhu also warned that the continued portrayal of China as a villain would push China further into a corner and force Beijing’s hand.

“I’ve met Burns before and he is a veteran diplomat. I think what he said at the confirmation hearing was more about catering to hardliners and anti-Chinese sentiment than expressing himself,” he said.

“Beijing would find it particularly unacceptable if you try to put the blame on China for everything that goes wrong in the region.”

Additional reporting by Jun Mai and Shi Jiangtao

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US nominee for Beijing ambassador takes tough stance