EXCLUSIVE – State Department Names Veteran Diplomat Lambert as Senior Official on China Policy Sources
By Humira Pamuk and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department has named veteran diplomat Mark Lambert as its top official on China policy, five sources familiar with the matter said, bringing new leadership to a part of the department that has faced staffing problems and criticism over its handling. One of the initiatives focused on China.
The sources said Lambert is likely to be named deputy assistant secretary of state for China and Taiwan, filling the position left by Rick Waters in June.
Waters also served as head of the China Coordination Office — known informally as “China House” — a unit set up by the ministry late last year to integrate China’s policies across regions and issues. Sources said whether Lambert will take over as coordinator of the Chinese People’s Congress is still under discussion.
Lambert’s appointment is unlikely to change the tone of Washington’s China policy, which President Joe Biden’s administration says is one of “tough competition” as it tries to increase engagement with Beijing to stabilize relations.
But Lambert, a distinguished diplomat with experience in East Asia, is sure to influence China House, which has been criticized for adding layers of bureaucracy to an already complex decision-making process.
It was not clear when the Foreign Ministry would officially announce the appointment.
“We do not have personnel announcements at this time, but the China Liaison Office remains integral to the U.S. government’s efforts to responsibly manage our competition with the People’s Republic of China and advance our vision of an open and inclusive international order,” a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed response to a request for comment. .
The State Department has responded to criticism of China House, saying it is one of its best performing teams.
“This has improved coordination and facilitated senior leaders’ diplomacy and policymaking, including enabling the Department’s response to the PRC Observation Balloon and rapid briefing to allies and partners around the world of exposure to the PRC’s global program,” said a State Department official.
The United States and China are at loggerheads on issues ranging from Taiwan to trade, fentanyl and human rights, but Washington has sought to keep channels of communication open ahead of a potential meeting later this year between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
An Asia expert with two terms at the US Embassy in Beijing, Lambert most recently served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State focusing on Japanese, Korean, and Mongolian affairs, and on relations with Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.
In his new position, he will continue to report to Assistant Secretary Daniel Kreitenbrink who heads the department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Reuters reported in May that the State Department had delayed sensitive action toward China to try to limit damage to bilateral relations after an alleged Chinese spy balloon crossed US airspace in February.
Senior officials acknowledged that there were morale and staffing problems at China House, but denied that they were related to how the State Department implemented China policy.
Congressional Republicans have questioned whether the Biden administration’s efforts to engage with senior Chinese officials have led to soft measures toward Beijing, an idea the department rejects.
Republican concerns about China House have led to questions about whether the Senate, which has the power to confirm top appointments, would insist on reviewing any nominee to run the unit.
If that is the case, two of the sources said that rather than nominating Lambert to be a coordinator of the Chinese People’s Congress, the State Department might simply appoint an already confirmed official, such as Kreitenbrink.
But two people familiar with the Senate’s thinking told Reuters that senators have no plans at this time to force a confirmation process.
One person said: “(Chinese House) is still a new experience and we have to wait and see how effective it is before we take steps to make it more permanent.”
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Michael Martina; Editing by Don Dorfee and Lincoln Feast)