05/26/2014 01:45 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2014

Baucus goes to China

Teddy Miller asks what the Baucus nomination means for US-China policy

Once crucial to essential questions of war and peace, ambassadorships in today's Washington are mostly prizes to be bid for by campaign donors or sleepy posts for career diplomats. If there is any nation for which the ambassadorship still matters, it's China. The Obama administration's decision to nominate Max Baucus, the former Democratic senator from Montana, to the post after Gary Locke '72's surprise resignation in the fall has prompted a divided reaction among close China watchers on both sides of the Pacific.

A staffing decision

As news of the appointment spread, Baucus' colleagues in the Senate were quoted by Politico as being "surprised" and "shocked," according to Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington, and Rob Portman, Republican from Ohio, respectively. Vice President Joe Biden, who served with Max Baucus for three decades, was the chief advocate for Baucus' nomination, according to Politico.

An undoubted cause of some of that surprise is Baucus' comparative lack of experience on China. A career politician, he served as the head of the powerful Senate Finance Committee for much of the past decade, meaning his engagement with China was primarily through trade issues. As chairman, he did not hesitate to accuse China of undervaluing its currency. In 2012, Baucus wrote that "China will not end its currency undervaluation unless the US seizes opportunities ... to insist it does."

Senator Sherrod Brown '74, Democrat of Ohio, in a statement praised Baucus' economic "stature and expertise" which will be useful in the continued effort to "crack down on China for illegal trade practices."

Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, said that the appointment "strongly implies that economics is at the core of the relationship."

"Focusing on the economy is safe and somewhat conservative, non-controversial, and non-aggressive."

And yet, in the early 2000s, Baucus did briefly chair and afterwards remained a member of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a group that has been the most consistently vocal government critic of human rights violations on the part of the Chinese government.

Baucus' experience with the CECC was enough to give some analysts reason to believe that he will bring a hawkish stance to his post in Beijing. Daly tempered this expectation, saying that it was "important to recognize that the ambassador not only doesn't make China policy, but doesn't even have a very big voice on China policy."

"Decisions are being made by an increasingly small group in Washington," Daly said, characterizing the appointment as fundamentally a "staffing decision."

The word from Beijing

In a widely circulated quip on Sina Weibo, China's popular microblogging platform, one Chinese internet user joked that Gary Locke resigned because "the haze in Beijing is so bad that [he] couldn't take it anymore."

In his official reasons for resigning, Locke, a former governor of Washington, cited his desire to rejoin his family in the United States. As the first Chinese-American to hold the post of ambassador to China, his most important contribution was largely symbolic. A photo of Locke and his family carrying their own luggage in the Seattle airport attracted praise and bewilderment from ordinary Chinese citizens for its unassuming nature and contrast with princely Chinese leaders.

The assessment of Locke's tenure in China was mixed. Some observers believed that Locke had been little more than an administrator, praising but also downplaying as an example his efforts to reduce wait-times for visas to the United States.

Politico Magazine quoted a former member of the Obama administration's economic team as saying that Locke was sent to Beijing and "never heard from again" after a failure to make a name for himself as Secretary of Commerce. Yet, The Atlantic crowned Locke as the "best-ever" ambassador to China for his mix of personal appeal and smooth supporting role in the high profile Wang Lijun (the Chongqing police chief who attempted to defect as part of the broader Bo Xilai scandal) incidents.

The assessment of Baucus' appointment by the Global Times, China's global affairs newspaper, was balanced, noting that "Baucus is proficient in trade issues with China." Sounding not unlike some American skeptics, the editorial warned that "in light of China's establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, intensifying China-Japan disputes over the Diaoyu [Senkaku] islands and the South China Sea disputes, the trading veteran may be in a disadvantageous position due to his lack of experience in handling security and diplomatic issues between China and the US."

Concluding that Baucus would handle the relationship with a "cool mind," the paper noted that Baucus would be the first ambassador in thirteen years that could not speak any form of Chinese (Gary Lock speaks some Cantonese). In a typical stylistic shift from analysis to warning, the article said "we expect Baucus to stay away from human rights issues and democratic shows that could hardly politically interrupt the bilateral relations."

A China policy "in disarray?"

On February 6th, the United States Senate voted to confirm Max Baucus by a vote of 96 to 0. In interviews with China Hands, the consensus by China experts was decidedly less unanimous.

Robert Daly noted positively that it would be "extremely valuable to have an ambassador who can explain Congress to China" and vice versa, given that Congress has been "one of the most difficult aspects" of the bipartisan relationship. The main job of an ambassador to China, Daly reasoned, was to be seen as a "credible voice," and Baucus was "an outstanding choice from that point of view."

Others believed that the Baucus appointment was a rather overcautious choice. Warren Cohen, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, countered Daly by saying that Baucus' "principal asset is an easy confirmation."

"The Chinese government will see this as an indication that the Obama administration is not going to challenge them on any of the issues that have come between the two nations," said Cohen. Despite Baucus' past attention to Chinese human rights issues, Cohen also criticized the Obama administration more broadly for being "completely disinterested" in human rights.

Cohen condemned the choice as indicative of an Obama administration policy on China that was "in disarray." President Obama, he judged, hadn't worked "through the strategic implications of the relationship," and warned that Baucus would face a learning curve on important security issues.

Robert Kapp GRD '70, former president of the US-China Business Council, was hopeful that Baucus would be an "astute listener." Baucus will "do fine in exercising judgment at those moments when as ambassador he really does have a decisive role," Kapp said.

Daly disagreed with criticism that Baucus' lack of deep experience on China issues was inherently negative. There are "many ways to be an effective ambassador," he said.

While conceding that Baucus' role would likely be limited, Daly did not see it as damaging for relations between the two nations overall. The most important aspects of the job are "managing machinery well" and "accompanying visiting firemen" from the United States attempting to solve issues between the two countries.

Starting one step back

Baucus' appointment has already put in jeopardy one of the Obama administration's most significant efforts in its pivot to Asia. As head of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus had been expected to lead the effort to grant President Obama trade promotion authority that would have made it easier for the United States and China to reach an agreement on the far-reaching Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The proposed trade agreement among 11 Pacific nations including Canada and Mexico would affect nearly $2 trillion in trade in goods and services. It marks an effort to ensure continued American economic influence in a region increasingly dominated by China's economic might. In late January, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed his opposition to fast-track authority, which many nations believe is necessary before making major commitments that would otherwise be subject to interference by the Senate.

Baucus' experience on the Senate Finance Committee, however, could improve the prospects for the bilateral investment treaty negotiations announced by the United States and China at the 2013 Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington.

If Baucus' appointment represents an effort to emphasize the economic dimension of the US-China bilateral relationship, it would also seem to ignore the reality of growing security tensions in the region.

"The danger to the relationship," said Daly, "is that China and the United States have incommensurate ideas about what constitutes security in the Western Pacific." This "stark disagreement" will be "the ground under which Baucus' ambassadorship unfolds."

The name of the state from which Baucus hails is derived from the Spanish word for mountain. It may also portend a rocky tenure.


Teddy Miller is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at Sandy Jin and Kyle Hutzler contributed analysis to this article.

This article also appears in China Hands.

Minor factual corrections were made to this article on June 20, 2014.