With relations between the world's two largest economies at their lowest point in decades, the United States Embassy in China is perhaps its most important diplomatic mission today.
It may also be one of its most isolated.
Amid China's zero-Covid policy and heavily restricted borders, few American officials are traveling into the country leaving more onus on the embassy to communicate US policy to the Chinese government, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said Thursday.
"It's an unusual time. We've not seen anything like this, really, in the past 50 years," said Burns, who is now in the fourth month of his posting in Beijing.
"It does put a lot of emphasis on our role here ... to be the connecting point with the Chinese leadership, and we are doing that, we are carrying on an intensive dialogue, and an intensive set of meetings with them," Burns said during a virtual talk hosted by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
"That's our job and we'll do that to the best of our ability so that we can keep the governments talking."
Burns, who took up a post that had stood empty since late 2020, has arrived in Beijing at a critical time. Heated rhetoric and a trade war ratcheted US-China tensions during the former Trump administration, and President Joe Biden's White House has continued to take a hard line on issues like China's human rights record — recently naming the country the "most serious long-term challenge to the international order."
The challenges may be part of why Burns, a career diplomat and former US Ambassador to NATO — who has also been a lead official negotiating thorny issues such as Iran's nuclear program, military assistance to Israel, and the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement — was selected for the role, observers say.
Burns said he aims to represent President Biden's Indo-Pacific agenda — building relationships with US allies, competing with China and also pushing forward needed areas of collaboration — and expects to continue to do so amid zero-Covid.
"My own assumption is that we'll see the continuation of zero-Covid, probably into the beginning months of 2023. That's what the Chinese government is signaling," Burns said.
The impact of that policy, in which a small number of Covid-19 cases can trigger lockdowns and mass testing, while border quarantines and restrictions remain in place, has also colored the ambassador's early months in Beijing.
Since his arrival in March, Burns said he has been meeting with American companies hit by zero-Covid's economic impacts. He has also been part of "around-the-clock" efforts to help Americans ensnared in lockdowns, including the months-long one in Shanghai.
Zero-Covid has also played a part in limiting his ability to leave Beijing and meet with people across the country — often a key facet of an ambassador's work and one that takes on particular significance as US-China interpersonal ties have suffered in recent years, due both to heightened tensions and pandemic restrictions.
"I haven't been able to break out of Beijing until last Sunday, when I was able to go by train to Wuhan, spend three days there — and it was a breath of fresh air," said Burns, who also stressed that he "takes seriously" the need to connect with Chinese people.
The ambassador's efforts in that regard have received some notice, in particular his social media presence.
Some see that as an effort to build more personal outreach to Chinese people from the embassy, which saw the departure of its last envoy in late 2020 when former Ambassador Terry Branstad left his posting early to assist Trump in his re-election bid.
One video, posted on the ambassador's Twitter and circulated on the embassy's accounts on Chinese social media platforms Wechat and Weibo, shows Burns and his wife, Elizabeth Baylies, on a recent visit to Beijing's Forbidden City.
In a voiceover, Burns calls the former imperial palace "one of the most extraordinary historical, architectural and cultural sites" he's seen in his career. Other posts document parts of the ambassador's trip to Wuhan -- including his visit to Wuhan University and calls for more exchange between US and Chinese students.
One tweet, in which the ambassador notes the "impressive" 308 kilometer/hour (191 mph) "rapid clip" of his high-speed train to Wuhan, caught attention from China's state-run media. An article by China News Service highlighted the comment, even as it also pointed out the "envy" of "foreign netizens" lacking such transport.
These efforts come after a tough set of years for people-to-people ties between the two countries. Programs like the US Peace Corps in China were cut under the Trump administration, international students from both countries were hit by Covid-19 restrictions (with foreign students still banned from China), and the number of American journalists in China has dwindled following expulsions.
Meanwhile, the rise of Chinese nationalism and heated rhetoric from both sides around issues like the origins of the pandemic have fueled backlash against the US within China.
In this climate, Burns' approach to social media "feels different" and more personal from what's been in recent years from US diplomats in China, says Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar at the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I do think it's safe to assume this is a concerted strategy to find a way of speaking to Chinese audiences that would maybe have some greater effectiveness than the ways we have been speaking," he said.
But such communications can also have their limits, especially as China's heavily censored social media platforms have become increasingly nationalistic, while platforms like Twitter are banned in the country. The US embassy's Weibo account is also routinely flooded by critical comments posted by Chinese nationalists.
"There is such bias and distorted information in China about the US right now, so it's difficult. I admire Ambassador Burns for what he has attempted to do, but how much he can accomplish from this attempt, I'm not quite sure," said Suisheng Zhao, director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
Burns, too, pointed to these challenges on Thursday, noting that the US Embassy was repeatedly censored when it tried to share Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent speech outlining the American approach to China, with the posts removed in under three hours.
"That's the game that they play, and, you know, we don't censor the president of China's speeches or the foreign minister of China's speeches in the United States ... we could never do that."
But he said he'll continue his outreach.
"I think there's a window here where Americans, if we talk respectfully ... we can make some inroads to make sure that the Chinese people understand who we are," he said.