01 Nicholas Burns FILE
Washington CNN  — 

Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador and senior State Department official, is the leading contender for US ambassador to China, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

The Biden administration wants to fill the role with someone who has extensive diplomatic experience and Burns meets that criteria, the sources said, but noted that announcements on any ambassador nominations are likely a ways off.

The role of top US envoy in Beijing will be a challenging one. The Biden administration is faced with a vast set of challenges when it comes to its relationship with China, from trade to human rights abuses to Beijing’s military moves and influence efforts abroad. The administration is reviewing its posture toward Beijing, but officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they want to engage “from a position of strength.”

Diplomats and regional experts have emphasized how important it is for whomever is named as ambassador to be perceived as having influence with President Joe Biden.

“The most important thing I think for an ambassador is to have a good relationship with the president and have some ability to directly communicate with the President and the key people around him,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s important for the person to have access to Xi Jinping as well,” she added.

Bloomberg was first to report that Burns is a leading contender for the China role.

As well as deciding on an envoy to China, the administration must also fill out the many other vacancies in the diplomatic corps, where career officials were denigrated and scrutinized by the Trump administration.

Among those being considered for other ambassador posts are former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for Japan; former Biden national security adviser Julie Smith for NATO; former Rep. Jane Harman for France; and former Ambassador Mark Gitenstein for the European Union.

Blinken has emphasized the importance of career diplomats

Blinken has spoken of the importance of career diplomats and the need for invigorating US diplomacy. There is an expectation that Biden will return to a more traditional mix of political and career appointees for the ambassador jobs – a shift from the previous administration that leaned heavily on political picks, a number of whom were unqualified.

“I am determined to put our career folks in positions of responsibility and leadership, and I am absolutely determined that politics are not going to come into this building,” Blinken told NBC News at the beginning of February.

A senior US diplomat told CNN, “What we’re hearing is consistent commitment that there will be fewer political appointees than Trump … and a commitment that everyone will be qualified and that people will not be nominated just because they’re donors.” They added that they do expect some donors to be picked.

But the Biden team is still expected to be weeks away from making any announcements on ambassador picks, sources said. They intend to announce the rest of the senior State Department positions before moving onto ambassadors, said a senior US diplomat and a source familiar with the discussions.

Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden had not been presented with a memo to make any decisions about ambassadorships. She also said that she is not sure if the Biden administration will name any ambassadors by March.

Until decisions are made on the political ambassadors, the career ambassadors cannot move into place.

“The State Department needs the White House to tell them which ambassadorships will be filled by politicals and which ones State can fill with career people,” the senior US diplomat told CNN. “And until the White House personnel office sends that list over to Secretary Blinken, there’s no possibility of moving up on names.”

CNN has reached out to the State Department and White House for comment.

This story has been updated with additional reporting Wednesday.