The White House is expected to appoint Sen. Max Baucus of Montana to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, surprising many on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. But in fact, Baucus is a more sensible choice than at first glance.
The current U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, will step down early next year. Since Locke’s announcement of his resignation, many names have been raised as a possible successor, but no one expected Baucus, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
Unlike Locke and his predecessor Jon Huntsman, Baucus has little personal connection with China. Both Huntsman and Locke are fluent Chinese speakers, Baucus isn't. Huntsman has an adoptive Chinese daughter, while Locke is a third-generation Chinese-American.
But despite Baucus' language deficiency, the senator may have exactly what President Barack Obama needs in terms of U.S.-China relations at the moment -- that is, smooth over the U.S.’s most complicated bilateral relationship, which has been tense as of late, after Chinese authorities unilaterally established an air defense zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea, the Talking Points Memo reported on Thursday. The U.S., in protest, flew a pair of B-52 bombers through the space last month.
Baucus, who is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, lacks experience in security issues. At a time when tension is high in the East China Sea and as the Obama administration executes a so-called Asia pivot in U.S. military strategy to more directly counter China, appointing Baucus would likely give the White House more control of military and political issues, without much interference from its ambassador to China, Foreign Policy magazine reported on Wednesday.
Where Baucus does bring considerable expertise and experience is in trade, and the senator’s track record in this arena suggests his stance won't entirely be soft. During the early 2000s, Baucus was chairman of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, a group extremely critical of China on human rights and economic policy. During one of his many meetings with Xi Jinping, before Xi took over as the president of China, Baucus brought up restrictions on U.S. beef exports on behalf of his home state, Salon reported on Wednesday.
"China's unfounded and unscientific barriers on U.S. beef are unfairly impeding American exports and hurting hardworking Montana ranchers, and we can't stand for it,” Baucus said at the meeting with Xi in 2010.
Recently, Baucus also co-authored a letter accusing China of undervaluing “its currency, providing an unfair advantage to Chinese exporters and harming U.S. manufacturers and their workers.” However, he hasn't acted as a currency hawk in Congress, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a fact that could put him in good graces with Chinese officials, and in a good place to begin more genial talks.