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As China-US Ties Continue to Fray, Can Their Ambassadors Make Repairs?

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As China-US Ties Continue to Fray, Can Their Ambassadors Make Repairs?

During previous rounds of crisis, ambassadors helped negotiate solutions. Can Qin Gang and Nicholas Burns follow suit?

As China-US Ties Continue to Fray, Can Their Ambassadors Make Repairs?

United States Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns speaks during a plenary session titled “The United Nations and the World” for the World Peace Forum, Monday, July 4, 2022, in Beijing.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-timed and unnecessary trip to Taiwan threatens to plunge already chilly China-U.S. relations to a new low. In President Xi Jinping’s phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden days before Pelosi’s visit, he warned his American counterpart that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Within days of Pelosi leaving Taiwan, China announced it was cancelling talks with the United States on issues including military-to-military relations and climate change. As the world confronts the lingering impacts of the coronavirus crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the economic implications of both, this is hardly the time for the two largest economies to reduce contact.

The Biden administration expressed hope in recent weeks for a face-to-face meeting between Biden and Xi in the fall, likely at either the G-20 summit in Bali or the APEC summit in Bangkok. But Xi has yet to confirm his attendance at either summit, and the anger over Pelosi’s visit may derail chances of a face-to-face meeting even if he does attend.

Moreover, it is possible that continuing negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with their Chinese counterparts, Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, may likewise suffer the consequences. Such meetings have been notable for their tension and lack of progress, but more recent sessions had reportedly been progressing more smoothly. Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has halted this momentum.

Who, then, will Biden and Xi turn to in these increasingly fraught times?

In the past, U.S. and Chinese leaders could have leaned on their ambassadors. China’s ambassadors to the United States have historically included some of the most talented diplomats in the nation’s history. Throughout my long career in Washington I have had the privilege of knowing nearly all of them; shortly after arriving in the United States in 1949, I met the legendary Wellington Koo (Gu Weijun), who attended the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I and tried valiantly but in vain to secure China’s sovereignty and the end of the unequal treaties that carved China into spheres of influence. Koo later served as a founding delegate of the United Nations and as ambassador to the United States. My meeting with Koo inspired my desire to study international relations.

From 1949-1973, the Chinese ambassador to the United States represented the Republic of China, then having fled to Taiwan. Koo and his successors, including Hollington Tong, worked to maintain Taiwan’s representation in the U.N., even as the People’s Republic of China continued to lobby for the seat.

In the early 1970s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon sought to open relations between the United States and China, one of the earliest steps taken was the establishment of “Liaison Offices” in Washington and Beijing. Each side chose highly esteemed diplomats to lead these offices.

The Americans chose David Bruce, the only man ever to serve as U.S. ambassador to France, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Germany. The Chinese selected Huang Zhen, who had served as ambassador to Hungary, Indonesia, and France, and also served as vice minister of Foreign Affairs. Bruce was soon replaced by future president George H.W. Bush, then fresh off stints as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as head of the Republican National Committee, who himself selected the China posting when given his choice of ambassadorship by President Gerald R. Ford.

In the decades after normalization of relations, U.S. presidents largely continued to appoint seasoned diplomats and China experts as ambassadors to Beijing, like Arthur W. Hummel Jr., Winston Lord, James Lilley, and Stapleton Roy. The White House leaned on their expertise to handle moments of crisis, including during the Tiananmen crisis in 1989 and during the last Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996.

During the 2001 EP-3 crisis, when an American reconnaissance flight crew was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet, then-Ambassador Joseph Prueher played an instrumental role in helping secure the release of the flight crew. Prior to serving as the ambassador, Prueher served as an admiral in the U.S. Navy and as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. He had no formal diplomatic training.

In last two decades, U.S. presidents have increasingly chosen to emphasize building economic ties in their choices of ambassadors rather than prioritizing diplomatic and crisis management experience. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump each appointed former governors and senators from states with strong trade relations with China as their ambassadors, including Gary Locke, Max Baucus, and Terry Branstad. President Joe Biden broke from this trend by appointing a career diplomat, R. Nicholas Burns, as his ambassador.

The U.S. is not alone in changing the criteria behind their choice of ambassadors. After the retirement of Ambassador Cui Tiankai, who held the position for over eight years, Xi Jinping appointed Qin Gang to fill the ambassadorship. While Qin majored in international relations, he spent his career not as a diplomat but as a spokesperson and as an adviser to Xi, where he gained a reputation for talking tough and espousing what Western analysts now characterize as “wolf warrior diplomacy.” He had virtually no experience with the United States prior to his appointment to the ambassadorship.

Now the United States and China find themselves once again facing crisis and with the presidents in Washington and Beijing and their chief intermediaries unlikely, unwilling, and perhaps incapable of having meaningful negotiations. Qin and Burns may now have to fill this void.

Qin recently defended China’s reaction to Pelosi’s visit in a Washington Post op-ed, where he cautioned, “Taiwan is one of the very few issues that might take China and the United States to conflict. Extra caution and a sense of responsibility are indispensable when it comes to Taiwan.” Qin was also summoned to the White House as the Biden administration sought to convey its disapproval at China’s firing of missiles in the waters around Taiwan. Burns was also summoned by China’s vice foreign minister, and himself defended Pelosi’s right to travel to Taiwan while vowing that the United States would do its best to keep the lines of communication with Beijing open.

Qin and Burns have thus far refrained from stirring up controversies in their respective postings, and both could prove efficient stewards of the relationship. But I suspect I am not alone in longing for the times when the U.S. and Chinese leaders both chose their most capable and qualified diplomats and experts to fill the important position of ambassador.