Senate confirms Baucus as new US ambassador to China
Senator Max Baucus was unanimously approved Thursday as the new US ambassador to China.
The full Senate vote was 96 to 0. The 72-year-old Democratic senator from Montana accepted congratulations from his colleagues in both parties before a clear result was announced and before he made a farewell address to the Senate, the body which he had served for more than 35 years.
“I never dreamed (I would see) a time that takes me back to China to represent the United States, 50 years later,” Baucus said, referring to his one-year hitchhiking trip across the world in the early 1960s as a Stanford University student, an adventure that took him to countries in Asia.
The confirmation came just two days after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously endorsed Baucus’ nomination and less than seven weeks after Politico first reported that the White House had selected Baucus for the job.
Baucus will succeed Gary Locke, the former Washington state governor and US commerce secretary and the first Chinese-American ambassador to China, appointed in 2011.
Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said Baucus’ priorities in Beijing should be to effectively communicate the decisions on US policies made by the White House, State Department and other related agencies and their objectives, while seeking to understand and report accurately relevant views and concerns in China.
Baucus’ background “suggests that he is particularly well prepared on economic and trade and related financial issues,” Lieberthal said.
“His background also suggests that he will have to do his homework to get up to speed on both China’s own system and politics and on geopolitical issues,” he said.
Lieberthal described Baucus as well-positioned to interpret to the Chinese public and his counterparts the concerns, politics and potential impact of actions by members of the US Congress and the executive branch.
“Executive branch clearly makes the policy. But the Congress has a role to play, especially on issues like budget, economic and trade and so forth,” said Lieberthal, describing Baucus as articulate and intelligent.
A Montana native, Baucus has chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee since 2007. The moderate Democrat was praised Thursday by Maria Cantwell, a Democratic Senator from Washington, for his ability to do deals. Baucus has a record of being able to work on a bipartisan basis despite the occasional opposition from his fellow Democrats.
Baucus has reportedly visited China eight times and hosted many trade delegations from China. He played a role in helping China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Baucus’confirmation came as the US and China try to build “a new type of major country relationship”, as pledged by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping when they met in Sunnylands, California, last June.
The two countries have developed an ever more-intertwined economic and trade relationship. Military exchanges also have increased in past years, reflected by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s expected China visit this year and China’s plan to participate in the Rim of Pacific naval exercise in Hawaii this year, for the first time.
However, the two countries often remain suspicious of each other’s strategic intentions, raising concerns about a potential arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. The escalating tension between China and Japan over the disputed islands in the East China Sea has the potential to draw the US into an unintended armed conflict due to its defense treaty obligations with Japan.
In a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan 28, Baucus described the US-China relationship as one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.
“It will shape global affairs for generations to come. We must get it right,” he said.
Baucus stressed the importance of trade relations with China. “From my first official visit to China in 1993 to my most recent trip in 2010, I have worked through economic diplomacy to strengthen ties between the United States and China,” he said. “I look forward to continuing that work to build a stronger, more equitable economic relationship between our countries.”
Baucus said at the hearing that if confirmed, he would want to accomplish two over-arching goals that are critical to the US’s relationship with China and that could help achieve a safer, more prosperous world, a shared interest.
The goals, according to Baucus, are to develop the economic relationship with China in a way that benefits American business and workers; and to partner with China as it emerges as a global power and encourage it to act responsibly in resolving international disputes, respecting human rights and protecting the environment.
He recalled his 2010 visit to China when he met President Xi Jinping, then the vice-president. Baucus said leaders from both sides have recognized that the two countries have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict.
“I believe that as well, and I see many areas of our relationship where cooperation is not only possible, but vital,” he said.
Last Apr i l , Baucus announced a plan to retire from the Senate in 2015. Some believe his early departure will help a Democratic candidate in Montana to fill the seat. Under the law, Montana’s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock can name a temporary replacement for Baucus before the November election.
US Senator Max Baucus testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan 28, following his nomination by US President Barack Obama to be the next US ambassador to China. Baucus won unanimous approval by the Senate on Thursday.