U.S. Senate backs Biden nominee Burns to be ambassador to China

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Former ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns gives his opening statement during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to be the U.S. Ambassador to China, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. October 20, 2021. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz/File Photo

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WASHINGTON, Dec 16 (Reuters) - A majority of the U.S. Senate on Thursday backed the confirmation of President Joe Biden's nomination of Nicholas Burns to be ambassador to China, positioning the veteran diplomat for a central role in the increasingly fractious relations between the two global rivals.

The Senate voted 75 to 18 to confirm Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who served as under secretary of state between 2005 and 2008.

Biden's choice of Burns, who has served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, marked a shift for the role of ambassador to Beijing, a position which recently has been filled by former politicians, not seasoned diplomats.

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It was not immediately clear when Burns would head for China, or whether it would be before the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February. The White House announced on Dec. 7 that U.S. government officials would boycott the games over China's human rights "atrocities."

Burns was nominated in August and, while his confirmation hearing went smoothly, a vote in the full Senate was delayed by disputes including disagreement over passing a bill to ban imports from China's Xinjiang region because of concerns they may have been produced with forced labor of Uyghur Muslims.

China denies abuses in Xinjiang, which supplies much of the world's materials for solar panels, but the U.S. government and many rights groups say Beijing has carried out genocide there.

Senate Republicans have been blocking dozens of Biden's nominees for diplomatic positions. After negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, agreement was reached for votes on three on Thursday - Burns, Ramin Toloui as an Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs and Rashad Hussain as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

The Senate passed the Uyghur bill earlier on Thursday, sending it to the White House, where the administration has said Biden will sign it into law.

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Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Michael Martina; editing by Diane Craft, Grant McCool and Jane Wardell

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