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What Max Baucus would bring to post of China ambassador

Max Baucus, if nominated and confirmed as US ambassador to China, arrives at a complex moment in US-China relations. But over six terms in the Senate, he's established solid China credentials.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D) of Montana (r.) walks with Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa (l.) to a caucus lunch at the Capitol on Thursday. Senator Baucus is reported to be President Obama’s choice to be the next US ambassador to China.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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A few years ago, Sen. Max Baucus invited a group of China experts to join him from time to time in his Senate hideaway office to discuss all things China over bowls of raw carrots.

“There was no particular legislation on the table at the time related to China, it was more just that, as [Senator Baucus] told us, ‘I want to get to know China,’ " says David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and one of the “China types” whose insights Baucus picked during about a year of occasional meetings.

The knowledge and insights that the retiring Montana Democrat gained from those discussions should serve him well in his next assignment. President Obama is expected to nominate Baucus to become the next US ambassador to Beijing.

The White House on Thursday was not confirming Mr. Obama’s intention to nominate Baucus, but Senate staffers said that Baucus began informing close associates of the decision late Wednesday.

The six-term senator would take the Beijing post, currently held by former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, at a critical juncture in US-China relations. Tensions between the two big powers have recently spiked as a result of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

But the broader context Baucus would enter is a complex one, China experts say, encompassing both China’s continuing rise as an economic and a security superpower and crucial challenges the Chinese leadership faces at home.

Baucus has already established solid credentials with the Chinese on the economic front – and, in particular, in the trade arena. In the 1990s, he was a crucial proponent of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and he pressed to extend to China special US trade status known as Permanent Normal Trade Relations.

The Montana lawmaker would bring less expertise to the regional-security portfolio, some China experts say – even as they underscore that it could be the area with the highest potential for tension-raising confrontations. (China’s recent decision to expand its air defense zone over an area of the East China Sea and a near collision between US and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea are examples of the kinds of crises Baucus can expect to confront.)

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Despite some recent uptick in US-China military-to-military cooperation – including some joint humanitarian intervention drills last month – relations on the security front are more broadly characterized by a deep mistrust, analysts say.

“It’s a problem when the militaries in both countries view each other as their largest potential big-power adversary,” says Dr. Lampton. “I don’t think we can consider a number of recent incidents, like the ship incident, and conclude that the security relationship is going in a comforting direction.”

Still, Lampton says he doesn’t believe that Baucus’s lack of close experience in this area constitutes a significant problem.

What Baucus might be lacking, some China experts in Washington suggest, is the means of establishing a high profile with the Chinese people that recent ambassadors have had. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah Republican governor, spoke fluent Chinese, and Ambassador Locke is Chinese-American – and while he does not speak Chinese, was able to translate his background and cultural connection into something approaching rock-star status.     

Lampton says he got the impression from the informal conversations on China that Baucus was interested in expanding his knowledge of Asia as other senators “from the agricultural states between the Appalachians and the Rockies” had done before him.

Two examples are Jim Sasser, the former Tennessee Democratic senator who served as ambassador to China in the late 1990s, and Mike Mansfield, the Montana Democrat who was the longest-serving US ambassador to Japan but who actually started his lifelong Asia focus as a result of a short stint as a US Marine in China.

“It was clear from those [Senate] meetings that [Baucus] saw Mansfield as a great statesman,” Lampton says, “and I think he saw that as the kind of role he’d like to play.”    


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