R. Nicholas Burns, President Biden’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to China, told a Senate panel on Wednesday that if he was confirmed he would help Mr. Biden pursue a strategy of competition and cooperation with a rising Beijing, which he called “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”
A lifelong diplomat who has held senior foreign policy posts in Democratic and Republican administrations, Mr. Burns was appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is considering his nomination. He was searing about China’s recent international role, saying that Beijing exploits trade rules at the expense of American businesses and workers, intimidates its neighbors, and is “smothering” democracy in Hong Kong.
He also condemned China’s treatment of its ethnic Uyghur population, which, in an echo of State Department policy, he called “genocide,” and he said that the United States should continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense against a potential Chinese attack — both issues of extreme sensitivity for Beijing.
But Mr. Burns said the United States should not overestimate China’s power. “Beijing proclaims that the East is rising, and the West is in decline,” he said. “I’m confident in our own country.”
“The People’s Republic of China is not an Olympian power,” he said. “It’s a country of extraordinary strength, but it also has substantial weaknesses and challenges, demographically, economically, politically.”
He added that America must balance competition with China on matters like its influence in the Indo-Pacific with cooperation on issues like climate change and North Korea’s nuclear program.
The soft-spoken Mr. Burns is well-regarded in both parties and likely to win broad support in a Senate confirmation vote. But his confirmation could be delayed by procedural roadblocks by Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, who have vowed to hold up all of Mr. Biden’s State Department nominees.
Mr. Burns’s nomination has drawn some positive reactions in China, which has complained about what it calls a sharply hawkish turn in American policy over the past several years.
In an August article about his nomination, The Global Times, a nationalist Beijing newspaper, quoted Lü Xiang, a research fellow on U.S. studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, as saying that Mr. Burns’s “opinions on China are relatively balanced, not as extreme and stiff as the diplomats from the previous Trump administration, such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.”