It’s an inconvenient time to not have an ambassador in Beijing, especially as the U.S. under the leadership of President Biden seeks to recalibrate its fractured relationship with China. A great deal of damage has been done to U.S.-China relations in the last few years—with both sides bearing significant fault—but now is the time to get things back on an even keel.
The key seat has been empty since ex-President Trump called Ambassador Terry Branstad back to the U.S. on October 4, 2020, to help with his ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign. Branstad had the unenviable job of representing the United States at the height of Trump’s erratic Twitter diplomacy, and he achieved little while in office. But his lack of China knowledge, lack of diplomatic gregariousness, and tendency to avoid sticking his neck out and avoid taking stands was of no help, either. Not to his boss, and not to the country, either.
Five months without a U.S. ambassador in Beijing is a long gap. Naturally a bureaucratic machine as large and complex as the U.S. embassy remains functioning, if not fully staffed during such interim periods, but an organization without a leader does not function well in times of crisis.
In ordinary times, the diplomatic machinery can kick into autopilot mode without too much risk. But given the daily stresses and weekly twists and turns of U.S.-China diplomatic jousting in recent months, it is distressing not to have a savvy and seasoned diplomat in charge. Not a yes-man to the incumbent president, but a person who the president trusts and respects enough to listen to.
A look at previous gaps in ambassadorial appointments suggests that valuable time is lost and critical initiatives delayed if something big goes down in-between appointments.
The Tiananmen protests of 1989 are one example of a critical political development erupting during the vacuum between ambassadors. Outgoing ambassador Winston Lord left Beijing in April 1989, the same week the protests started, but his replacement, James Lilley, didn’t arrive until mid-May when the demonstrations were going full-force. It was only a gap of a few weeks, but it was precisely in that fertile period that the inchoate desire of youth to rebel evolved from a ragtag spontaneous protest to an establishment-shaking social upheaval.
The U.S. was fortunate in having a seasoned China hand such as James Lilley replace the bureaucratic yes-man to Henry Kissinger, Winston Lord. Not only was Lilley, born in China, as fluent in Chinese as the previous ambassador’s wife, Bette Bao Lord, but he brought considerable gravitas to the role, as a man of deep knowledge and strong opinions.
Lilley continually surprised his diplomatic colleagues by taking strong counter-intuitive positions. On the one hand, he approved providing refuge to dissident physicist Fang Lizhi on embassy grounds, but he also arranged a clandestine high-level meet between Brent Scowcroft and Deng Xiaoping on July 2, 1989, less than a month after the bloody crackdown in the streets of Beijing. He knew China well enough and was enough of a hardened realist to realize that there was much in the U.S.-China relationship worth protecting, (much as he had done for Taiwan) and that public opinion, however justifiable in its outrage of the moment, was a poor compass for plotting the future of bilateral relations. Not generally known to the American public, the U.S. had missile monitoring stations in far-flung reaches of China, operated with the discreet cooperation of Beijing that were considered essential to U.S. national defense vis-a-vis the USSR at that time.
That’s not to say that defense needs should trump humanitarian issues. These issues have to be examined on a case-by-case basis, and even then, mistakes will be made. But it drives home the point that there are many factors, seen and unseen, public and clandestine, that a diplomat has to juggle and take into account.
The global chessboard is far more complicated than the headlines of the day would suggest, which is why foreign policy is poorly served by caving in to populist opinion and extravagant shows of nationalism.
One might expect that an avowed anti-communist who had served in Taiwan and did everything he could to enhance Taiwan’s defensive posture would have been hated by the Chinese, but James Lilley was more genuinely liked and better appreciated than the hapless Winston Lord because of his intrinsic respect for the culture and his instinctive understanding of the leadership despite political disagreements.
State-level politicians who got appointed to the top post, such as former Utah Governor Jim Huntsman and Washington State Governor Gary Locke, did not enjoy successful tenures. Locke’s Chinese-American heritage did nothing to make the pressures of the job any easier to bear, and Huntsman got in trouble for playing to the media with political grandstanding. When Huntsman was sighted at a pro-U.S. demonstration at Wangfujing, which he apparently had prior knowledge of, he claimed he was just out for a McDonald’s hamburger, earning the enmity of his counterparts.
Winston Lord and Stapleton Roy were career diplomats, which made them more effective envoys than low-level politicos such as George Bush Jr.’s appointee, Clark Randt who was a personal friend of the president, and Trump appointee, former Iowa governor, Terry Bransted who was a Republican loyalist. Both came and left without notable accomplishment.
On the other hand, former Tennessee Senator Jim Sasser, who was no one’s idea of a China expert, had the political aplomb and presence of mind to keep calm and keep the peace during the diplomatic meltdown sparked by the U.S.-directed NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1998.
Robert W. Forden is currently the top diplomat in the U.S. Beijing Embassy and the man in charge should anything happen.
As Chargé d’Affaires, he helps oversee day-to-day functions in the absence of an ambassador. Like James Lilley, he has previous experience in both China and Taiwan and is considered competent at his job. But China is a stickler for rank and protocol and is not willing to treat a deputy head of mission with the respect and protocol reserved for an ambassador.
When the U.S. announced sanctions against 14 prominent Chinese officials last December for actions in Hong Kong, Forden was summoned by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and raked over the coals to send a signal to his bosses back in Washington. Forden had an obligatory meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang who expressed “strong indignation and strong condemnation” at the U.S. move. This is not necessarily alarming in diplomatic terms–the summoning of diplomats to register displeasure is a standard tool of foreign policy–but only the top diplomats on both sides are empowered to negotiate breakthroughs.
Diplomats in the realist tradition of know-China, know-thyself, such as Arthur Hummel and James Lilley, were among the most effective envoys the U.S. has ever sent to Beijing. Both men were born in China, fluent in Chinese, and earned the respect of their counterparts, in no small part because they had respect for China. They had few illusions and worked with China as it was, not as they wished it to be.