Caixin
Mar 30, 2021 08:31 PM
WORLD

Biden Taps Veteran China Hand to Lead East Asia Unit

U.S. President Joe Biden has picked Daniel Kritenbrink, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, to be assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the White House announced Friday.

Kritenbrink is an American career diplomat with nearly 30 years’ experience, including as an Asia policy adviser to former President Barack Obama. An expert on East Asian affairs, he speaks fluent Chinese and Japanese. His appointment will take effect after Senate confirmation.

A veteran of two separate postings to Beijing, he was a political officer from 2006 to 2009 and deputy chief of mission and political minister counselor from 2011 to 2015. In November 2013, he became charge d'affaires following the resignation of then U.S. ambassador Gary Locke, holding the position until Max Baucus was made ambassador in March 2014.

Kritenbrink named himself Kang Da (康达) in Chinese, meaning good health and career. His wife is a Japanese American.

If confirmed, Kritenbrink will succeed David Stilwell, who stepped down at the end of the Trump administration. A Korean American diplomat and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Sung Kim, is currently acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Kritenbrink's nomination to the job came as no surprise and he also had been regarded as a possible candidate for the role of ambassador to China.

From 1994 to 2004, he held posts at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the U.S. Consulate General in Sapporo, and the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. After returning to the U.S., he became Asia policy adviser to the National Security Council and director of the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department under Obama.

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As U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and senior adviser for North Korean policy during the Trump administration, he stressed the importance to the U.S. of the South China Sea issue. In a 2016 article, he outlined the U.S.’ and Vietnam's “adherence to international law” stance, and reiterated the U.S.’ tough stance toward China on related issues.

Kritenbrink was deeply involved in preparations for the February 2019 Hanoi summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

According to Foreign Policy magazine, the staffing of Biden's National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific Affairs team shows how much importance the administration attaches to the region.

Some current and former officials of the NSC have confirmed that there will be nearly 20 officials in the directorate once it is fully staffed, making it the largest branch of the agency, the magazine said.

Most observers of American foreign policy believe that compared with the Obama era, the foreign policy focus of the current administration will further tilt toward the Indo-Pacific region. In terms of top diplomatic appointments, the administration has included more professional bureaucrats and young experts who are proficient in Chinese and other Asian languages.

Michael Green, senior director of Asia-Pacific Affairs for the NSC during George W. Bush's administration, said that in the past the Europe Directorate was three times larger than that for Asia, but today is the opposite.

In addition to more staff, the Biden administration has also created the new NSC position called coordinator for the Indo-Pacific. It is held by foreign policy veteran, Kurt Campbell, who oversees inter-agency policy that deals with changes and challenges in the region, especially involving China. His team has three senior directors, for China, South Asia, as well as East Asia and Oceania.

Laura Rosenberger becomes senior director for China at the NSC. She was chief of staff to Secretary of State Tony Blinken and also a foreign policy advisor for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

As director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a U.S. liberal think tank, Rosenberg conducted research into the manipulation of false information on the Internet and the impact of information warfare on the "democratic system."

Under her leadership, there will be two directors responsible for China affairs, Rush Doshi and Julian Gewirtz, two relative “newcomers” who can communicate in Chinese and have experience on exchange or studying in China.

The Biden administration is yet to announce its nomination for U.S. ambassador to China.

Obama’s first chief of staff and former mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, and former U.S. deputy secretary of state, Nicholas Burns, are major candidates, according to U.S. media. The position has been vacant since Edward Branstad's resignation in October 2020.

Contact reporter Guo Xin (xinguo@caixin.com) and editor Lu Zhenhua (zhenhualu@caixin.com)

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