By Humeyra Pamuk and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. State Department has picked veteran diplomat Mark Lambert as its top China policy official, five sources familiar with the matter said, bringing in new leadership for a part of the department that has faced staffing problems and criticism over its handling of China-focused initiatives.
Lambert will likely be named as the deputy assistant secretary for China and Taiwan, the sources said, filling the post left in June by Rick Waters.
Waters had also served as the head of the Office of China Coordination – informally known as ‘China House’ – a unit the department created late last year to meld China policies across regions and issues. Whether Lambert will assume the China House coordinator title is still being discussed, sources said.
Lambert’s appointment is unlikely to change the tone of Washington’s China policy, which President Joe Biden’s administration says is one of “intense competition” while trying to increase engagement with Beijing to stabilize ties.
But Lambert, a well-regarded diplomat with experience in East Asia, is certain to influence China House, which has been criticized for adding layers of bureaucracy to an already complex decision-making process.
It was unclear when the State Department will formally announce the appointment.
“We have no personnel announcements to make at this time, but the Office of China Coordination remains an integral piece of the U.S. governments efforts to responsibly manage our competition with the People’s Republic of China and advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system,” a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed response to a request for comment.
The State Department pushed back on criticism about China House, saying it was one if its highest-functioning teams.
“It has improved coordination and facilitated senior leaders’ diplomacy and policymaking, with results including enabling the Department’s response to the PRC surveillance balloon and rapid briefing of allies and partners around the world to expose the PRC’s global program,” a State Department official said.
The U.S. and China are at odds over issues from Taiwan to trade, fentanyl and human rights, but Washington has sought to keep communication channels open ahead of a possible meeting later this year between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
An Asia expert who did two stints at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Lambert most recently served as a deputy assistant secretary focused on Japanese, Korean and Mongolian affairs, and on relations with Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.
In the new role, he will continue to report to Assistant Secretary Daniel Kritenbrink who leads the department’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs bureau.
Reuters reported in May that the State Department delayed sensitive actions toward China to try to limit damage to bilateral relations after an alleged Chinese spy balloon crossed U.S. airspace in February.
Senior officials have acknowledged morale and staffing problems at China House, but denied they were linked to how the State department carries out China policy.
Republicans in Congress have questioned whether the Biden administration’s effort to engage with senior Chinese officials has led to watered-down 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 senior appointments, might insist on reviewing any nominee to run the unit.
If so, two of the sources said that rather than nominate Lambert to be China House coordinator the State Department might simply appoint an already confirmed official, such as Kritenbrink.
But two people familiar with Senate thinking told Reuters that for now, senators have no plans to force a confirmation process.
“(China House) is still a new experiment and we must wait to see how effective it is before we take steps to make it more permanent,” said one of the people.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Michael MartinaEditing by Don Durfee and Lincoln Feast)