Help wanted: ambassador to Beijing

Help wanted: ambassador to Beijing

It’s the job many consider the most important one outside of the presidential cabinet. Who will be U.S. ambassador to Beijing?

Sources tell The Cable that several people have turned the job down, including Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator, and John Podesta, the Center for American Progress president and Obama-Biden transition chief (neither responded immediately to queries).

"Some people think ambassador jobs are beneath them," one Washington foreign policy hand explained. "Others think the process to get confirmed is too big a pain in the ass. Some people don’t want to move to China."

One recently discussed candidate is Bill Owens, a retired admiral. Owens, who was appointed as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by former President Bill Clinton, was more recently president of defense contractor SAIC (he couldn’t immediately be reached).

Another name to watch is former Rep. Jim Leach, the Iowa Republican who broke party ranks early on to endorse Obama’s presidential candidacy. Leach, who recently returned to Princeton University after serving a term as director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, has also been mentioned as a possible USAID administrator. It wasn’t clear if Leach was one of the people said to have turned the Beijing envoy job down. He declined to comment.

A figure many Asia hands consider substantively up for the job is Ken Lieberthal, a former NSC senior director for Asia and University of Michigan professor who advised Hillary Clinton on Asia during her primary campaign and is affiliated with the Brookings Institution. But the virtues of academic heft may run up against questions of political stature — as well as Beijing’s interest in hosting an ambassador thought to have the all-important presidential ear.

"Lieberthal is supremely well qualified to do it," the Washington foreign-policy hand said. "But not sure that he is a first-rank political figure. Any government that wants a special relationship wants the ambassador to have a special relationship with the president" (Lieberthal didn’t respond to a query).

In the Washington parlor game of guessing who will get what, Samuels International’s Chris Nelson is the unrivalled source on Asian policy machinations and appointments.

Mention in his eponymous Report this week that the latest name under consideration to become Obama’s ambassador to Beijing may be a woman has set speculation into overdrive. Could it be Laura D’Andrea Tyson, the former Council of Economic Advisors chair? Or perhaps the University of California, San Diego’s Susan Shirk?

Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state on East Asia during the first Clinton administration, is said to be close to Hillary Clinton, and has recently been affiliated with the Asia Society (which U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke previously chaired).

But sources tell The Cable that both women are unlikely picks: Shirk because as an academic she may lack the global stature to reassure the Chinese of the importance of the Washington-Chinese relationship; Tyson because China is not really her field of expertise. Tyson’s work on high tech trade economics was big in the Japan debates in the 1980s, and was said to be influential on the Clintons. But Asia hands couldn’t ever recall seeing anything she’d written on China. Another administration official said he didn’t think it would be Tyson.

One person discussed in Foggy Bottom a month ago as a possible Beijing ambassador pick:  former State Department counselor Wendy Sherman. The Asia expert, Albright Group principal, and close Hillary Clinton advisor has the Secretary’s ear and the regional expertise. The only question, one administration hand wondered today, is whether she would be more likely to get nominated to be under secretary of state for economic affairs, now that Lael Brainard has gone to the Treasury Department. (Brainard’s spouse, of course, is the incoming assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell, who is said by Nelson and others to be effectively on the job while awaiting his formal nomination and confirmation hearings.)

An earlier rumored frontrunner for the job, John L. Thornton, a former Goldman Sachs president and COO who quit in 2003 to become a full professor at a Chinese university, is thought to no longer be high on the list. Now chairman of the Brookings board and a China advisor to Yale University, Thornton is said to be hampered by concern over the "Goldman Sachs" part of his resume.

Sources tell The Cable they understand the Obama team doesn’t want to announce its pick to be ambassador to Japan until it announces his or her Beijing counterpart. Harvard’s Joseph Nye is considered a possible nominee for the Tokyo job. Nye, a former National Intelligence Council chairman and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, headed a CSIS commission with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage  that described the U.S.-Japanese alliance as a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Asia through 2020. Such views are said to make him an enthusiastic choice of the Japanese, who are anxious about getting "passed over" in favor of the U.S.-China relationship. Nye declined to comment on his status.