U.S. Ambassador to China Pessimistic on Direction of Ties with Beijing

U.S. Ambassador to China Pessimistic on Direction of Ties with Beijing
U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns (Brookings)

The Lede: On Friday, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns bluntly expressed his doubts about the future of U.S.-China relations at a keynote address hosted by the Brookings Institution. This comes exactly one month after President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco

What We Know:

  • The ambassador spoke at an event for the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program where he expressed his tempered outlook on U.S.-China relations after a year of high-level visits and meetings between leaders and officials of the two countries. Burns acknowledged that the two superpowers’ relationship will be defined by strategic competition in the coming decades, but conflict and war must be avoided while engagement must be pursued where interests align. 
  • Burns also spoke on Thursday at the 50th anniversary gala of the U.S.-China Business Council in Washington where he highlighted the progress made by both sides to “bring a measure of badly needed stability to the US-China relationship.” U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen underscored the role of economic working groups that were emphasized following her visit to China this year. Xi also sent a letter to the business council encouraging members to broaden cooperation and  “build more bridges for friendly exchange.”. 

The Background: The U.S. has been working toward improving relations with China after years of deterioration that began with tariffs on Chinese goods under the Trump administration and worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been military tensions between the superpowers in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait as well as a steady ratcheting-up of economic and trade restrictions. The Biden administration has focused its export controls to China on investments in high-tech sectors including semiconductors.  

Likely Outcomes:

  • Burns’ pessimism should not be construed as a desire to put further pressure on U.S.-China relations. The ambassador’s attitude and efforts will likely be focused in the direction of the intersection of interests between Washington and Beijing, but the overarching approach of the U.S. toward China will be determined by their rivalry and the testing of red-lines, especially with respect to Taiwan and the South China Sea. 
  • The Biden administration’s economic and political chokehold on the chip industry and the House Select Committee’s recent hawkish calls for dramatic revisions to economic and financial ties to China will likely dominate the strategic competition in the foreseeable future, which would confirm Burns’ dour outlook. Tensions may hover around these levels until a possible catalyst causes something to break. This could include an economic or financial shock in either country or a military misstep involving the armed forces of both countries.


“I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic. Careful…realistic, maybe hopeful if you will, but hopeful is different from being optimistic…The people of China are not our enemy. We do want to live in peace with China. No person in their right mind should want this relationship to end up in conflict or war.” – Nicholas Burns, U.S. Ambassador to China

“I think we see a charm offensive from China, both regarding Europe and also the United States. We see an interest in fulfilling promises like [Burns] said about the fentanyl, which seems to have begun to work. The black market in precursor chemicals seems to be shutting down at least partially in Beijing. There’s good will available right now. Whether it will last is a big question.” – Klaus Larres, professor of international affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a fellow at the Wilson Center

Good Reads:

Top US diplomat to China: Not ‘optimistic’ about future relations (Politico)

US-China relations are defined by rivalry but must include engagement, American ambassador says (AP)

‘I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic’ about state of China relations, says US ambassador to Beijing Nicholas Burns (SCMP)