What the Next U.S. Ambassador to China Must Do

From easing visa regulations to managing international crises, Washington's next diplomat in Beijing will manage an important—and delicate—relationship.
The person who succeeds Gary Locke as the U.S. Ambassador to China will assume one of the world's most important diplomatic posts. (Wong Campion/Reuters)

Mary Kay Magistad, former China correspondent for the PRI/BBC radio program The World:

Gary Locke succeeded in a way that few U.S. ambassadors to China have—in improving public perceptions of U.S. culture.  Locke’s down-to-earth approachability and lack of ostentation certainly helped. So did the initiatives of shortening waits for U.S. visas from 70-100 days to 3-5 days, and making pollution data public, helping the Chinese people pressure their government into doing the same. Not bad for two and a half years.

The new U.S. ambassador to China should continue to make it easier for Chinese to come to the United States to visit, work and study. Millions of Chinese parents are concerned that China’s educational system isn’t teaching their kids the critical and creative thinking skills they’ll need to succeed in a economy that increasingly will be based more on ideas than on cheap manufacturing. Gifted students should be allowed to come to the United States and study and, if they like, stay and work. And if and when they go back to China, they will be living examples of how learning, working and living in a more open society leads to the kind of thinking that China needs to transform its economy and gain the kind of respect it wants in the world.

Within China, the new U.S. ambassador also can encourage and facilitate educational and scientific exchanges, and suggest that sharing ideas is better for China in the long run than building a protective fence around China’s own “indigenous innovators.” That may be a cozy setup for existing Chinese companies; it does little to encourage the kind of breakthrough innovation China’s leaders want.

On the political front—geopolitical tensions with Japan and in the South China Sea are likely to continue, and the U.S. ambassador likely will be having many a discussion with Chinese counterparts on those issues. The U.S. resolve to remain the predominant Pacific power may be tested, and while policy will be made in Washington, diplomacy in Beijing will play a role in sending the necessary signals in a timely fashion.  Some in China believe the country will inevitably will eclipse the United States, which should have the good grace to step aside as leading superpower sooner rather than later. The new U.S. ambassador will do well to project confidence without arrogance, and an attitude that the China-U.S. relationship is vitally important, because both countries are important to the global economy, politics and environment, and are likely to remain so for a long time to come.

It’s hard to separate thoughts on what’s needed in our next ambassador to Beijing from what that ambassador should do when he or she takes the job, so these comments contain a little of both elements.

Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council from 1994 to 2004.

All ambassadors are, first and foremost, messenger-representatives of their heads of government. Our next ambassador to China will, I hope, have a strong and reliable connection to President Obama, and be able reliably to articulate to the Chinese the reasoning and the intended meaning of the President's words and views.

The next ambassador will, of course, report to the Secretary of State, and be structurally integrated into the State Department. U.S.-China relations today cover practically the entire spectrum of U.S. government responsibilities. At the ambassadorial level, “diplomacy” must include worldly competence on a range of issues not normally included in the State Department’s own brief. Our Beijing embassy has very significant staffing by personnel from a host of other agencies, most notably the Department of Commerce, but many, many others as well. The U.S. and China now conduct something like eighty agency-to-agency official dialogues, and the U.S. ambassador must, with the assistance of staff, be able to “walk the walk and talk the talk” in all of them. The job requires, for lack of a better term, a truly worldly individual.

That needed worldliness does not mean that rank unfamiliarity with China is all right; it is not. This relationship is too big to place the ambassadorship in the hands of someone without a basic grasp of China’s geography, its political and economic systems, and ideally its cultural foundations, and its social realities. Chinese language skill would be an asset, but is not required (our ambassadors, including Ambassador Locke, have been served with distinction by extraordinarily talented interpreters). Some orientation will be needed for anyone taking the job, but there is too much at stake to place the job in the hands of a novice, and the Chinese will be alert to both the downsides and the upsides (for them) of dealing with a China newbie if one is appointed. Happily, now that U.S.-China relations have grown to their current depth and scope, there are plenty of Americans both in government and in the private sector who have the background and China skills needed for this position.

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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