President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to China was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday after a top Republican senator agreed to drop his hold on the nomination and allow a vote following the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.
Nicholas Burns, an ambassador during the Clinton administration and a State Department official during George W. Bush’s presidency, was confirmed by a 75-18 vote on Thursday evening, a few hours after the anti-slave labor law was passed unanimously by the Senate.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who led the charge pushing the law banning the importation of products made in the area where the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims is taking place unless companies can show “clear and convincing evidence” that the products were not made with forced labor, had also blocked the Burns nomination last month.
“Nicholas Burns has a long career in public service, but it is a career defined by the failure to understand the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Rubio said at the time. “In fact, Burns displayed no remorse or concern about his current business relationships with nationless corporations operating in China.”
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That was likely a reference to Burns working as a senior counselor at the Cohen Group for more than a decade. The global consulting firm has two offices in China, while its website touts its "solid record of success" in the Chinese market.
“Burns is exactly the type of nominee I expect from President Biden given this administration’s weak approach toward China, including lobbying against my bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The last thing we need is another caretaker of American decline in the room with the Chinese Communist Party," Rubio added.
Despite allowing a vote to move forward on Burns, Rubio still opposed him and voted against his nomination on Thursday, along with Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn, Mike Braun, John Bozeman, Tom Cotton, Bill Haggerty, Josh Hawley, John Hoeven, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Jim Inhofe, James Lankford, Mike Lee, Roger Marshall, Rand Paul, Rick Scott, Tim Scott, Tommy Tuberville, and Roger Wicker.
“We’ve got a lot of issues that exist between us and China and, certainly, Ambassador Burns is the one to carry our water there," Republican Sen. Jim Risch, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on the floor of the Senate before the vote.
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of Senate Foreign Relations, said, “Ambassador Burns is an outstanding public servant — one of the nation’s best, and I am pleased to support his nomination as the next ambassador to China. … If there’s a place that we need an ambassador, it’s China.”
A regular theme of the preferred approach to China pushed by Burns is the need for the United States to "challenge" and "compete" with the Chinese Communist Party, as well as "cooperate" on issues such as climate change and global health, according to his statement to the Foreign Relations Committee during the confirmation process.
During the confirmation process, Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, highlighted comments the Harvard professor made in March 2020 in which Burns lamented, “Right now, we’re all witnessing a war of words. The Chinese have made a preposterous, untrue, and shameful assertion. … They say that the crisis began because the U.S. army planted a weapon, a virus in the city of Wuhan. There is no basis for this. … At the same time, President Trump personally calls this the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘Wuhan virus.’ We all know that’s wrong. We all know it’s racist. We all know it’s not true. The virus doesn’t know boundaries.”
Burns wrote an op-ed for Foreign Affairs that same month in which he criticized both the Trump administration and the Chinese government for a “blame game” over “who is ultimately responsible” for the COVID-19 pandemic. Burns took to Twitter in May 2020 to attack then-President Donald Trump for suggesting the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and alleged Trump was using China as a “scapegoat."
Burns also signed on to a letter in April 2020 that said an investigation into COVID-19’s origins should be pushed off.
That summer, the former ambassador claimed that the U.S. was accusing China of things that were untrue, arguing, “They’ve accused each other of the most outrageous things, both incorrectly.”
Burns also wanted Trump to pick billionaire Bill Gates to be the U.S.’s “Coronavirus Czar.”
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The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk, where he is expected to sign it.
Major international corporations such as Coca-Cola and Nike reportedly lobbied against the bill, arguing that the requirements could harm supply chains, and there were reports that the Biden administration was trying to quietly water down the bill behind the scenes, which the White House denied.