Biden Nominates Burns and Emanuel to Be His Ambassadors to China and Japan

The president has rolled out dozens of ambassador nominees, but so far only one has been confirmed by the Senate.


By Annie Karni

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Friday nominated R. Nicholas Burns, a veteran Foreign Service officer and a former ambassador to NATO, as ambassador to China and Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago and former President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, as ambassador to Japan.

Mr. Biden settled on both nominees months ago, people involved in the process said. But the official announcement was delayed in part because the United States needs the host countries to sign off on such selections before proceeding.

The nominations were announced on Friday afternoon, hours after Mr. Biden delivered remarks on the chaos in Afghanistan, the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency to date.

Mr. Burns is poised to fill a diplomatic vacuum as an increasingly ideological conflict between China and the United States has led to worsening relations. In March, an extraordinarily tense meeting in Anchorage between top Chinese and American diplomats devolved into public renunciations.

Around that time, Mr. Biden had been deciding between Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Burns to be his ambassador to China, one of the most important embassy postings. He told people he was interested in choosing a “principal” who would send a different sort of message than a career diplomat would, people involved in the process said.

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    The diplomatic world, however, was pushing for Mr. Burns, a career Foreign Service official who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, over someone whose background was steeped in domestic politics.

    “I welcome this opportunity to work on behalf of the president and the American people on the strategic competition between the U.S. and the P.R.C., as well as other difficult and complex challenges we face at this critical juncture in our relationship,” Mr. Burns said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

    Mr. Emanuel, who developed a close relationship with Mr. Biden when he was vice president, was among those being considered for a cabinet position during the transition. But that speculation renewed ire from progressives who were critical of his performance as mayor, particularly his handling of the fatal shooting of a Black teenager, Laquan McDonald, by a Chicago police officer in 2014. Mr. Emanuel has also been a contender for the Japan ambassadorship since the presidential transition.

    If confirmed, Mr. Emanuel would head to Tokyo at a time when U.S. officials are hoping stronger relations with Japan can serve as a counterbalance to its deteriorating relationship with China.

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    “The alliance between the United States and Japan is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific, and I would proudly represent our nation with one of our most critical global allies in one of the most critical geopolitical regions,” Mr. Emanuel said in a statement.

    Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who worked closely with Mr. Emanuel on the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, praised him as a leader of “immense experience and effectiveness.”

    Mr. Biden has rolled out dozens of ambassador nominees this year, but so far only Ken Salazar, his ambassador to Mexico, has been confirmed by the Senate.

    “We are frustrated over the slow pace of confirmations, particularly for noncontroversial nominees,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said this month. “A number of these nominees who are sitting and waiting are highly qualified. A number of them have a lot of Republican support. So what is the holdup?”

    On Friday, Mr. Biden also nominated Michael Battle, a career Foreign Service official, as the ambassador to Tanzania.

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