(CNN) – Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador and senior State Department official, is the leading candidate for U.S. ambassador to China, according to two sources familiar with the talks.
The Biden administration wants to fill the role with someone who has extensive diplomatic experience and Burns meets those criteria, the sources said, but noted that announcements about any ambassadorial appointments are likely far away.
The role of the top American envoy to Beijing will be difficult. The Biden administration faces a vast array of challenges in regards to itsrelationship with China, from trade and human rights abuses to Beijing’s military movements and overseas influence efforts. The administration is reviewing its position vis-à-vis Beijing, but officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they want to engage “from a position of strength”.
Diplomats and regional experts have stressed how important it is for whoever is appointed ambassador to be seen as having influence with President Joe Biden.
“The most important thing in my opinion for an Ambassador is to have a good relationship with the President and to have some ability to communicate directly with the President and the key people around him,” said Bonnie Glaser, Advisor Principal for Asia and Director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It is important that the person also has access to Xi Jinping,” she added.
Bloomberg wasfirst to reportthat Burns is one of the main contenders for the role in China.
In addition to deciding on an envoy to China, the administration must also fill the many other vacancies in the diplomatic corps, where career leaders have been denigrated and scrutinized by the Trump administration.
Candidates for other ambassadorial positions include former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for Japan; Julie Smith, Biden’s former national security adviser for NATO; former Jane Harman representative for France; and former Ambassador Mark Gitenstein for the European Union.
Blinken stressed the importance of career diplomats
Blinken spoke about the importance of career diplomats and the need to reinvigorate American diplomacy. Biden is expected to return to a more traditional mix of political and career appointments for ambassadorial posts – a change from the previous administration that relied heavily on political choices, including a number were not qualified.
“I am determined to place our career people in positions of responsibility and leadership, and I am absolutely determined that politics will not enter this building,” Blinken told NBC News in early February.
A senior US diplomat told CNN: “What we are hearing is a constant commitment that there will be fewer political appointments than Trump … and a commitment that everyone will be qualified and people will not be appointed. simply because they are donors. ” They added that they expect some donors to be selected.
But Biden’s team should still be weeks away from making any announcements on ambassadorial picks, sources said. They plan to advertise other high-level State Department positions before becoming ambassadors, a senior US diplomat and a source close to the talks said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week said Biden had not received a memo to make decisions about ambassadors. She also said she was not sure the Biden administration would appoint ambassadors by March.
Until decisions are made about political ambassadors, career ambassadors cannot budge.
“The State Department needs the White House to tell them which ambassadors will be occupied by politicians and which the state can provide career people,” the senior US diplomat told CNN. “And until the White House personnel office sends this list to Secretary Blinken, there is no way the names can be traced.
CNN has contacted the State Department and the White House for comment.
This story was updated with additional reporting on Wednesday.
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