With heightened tension between the US and China, President Barack Obama's second-term administration is feeling the loss of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and former treasury secretary Timothy Geithner - both mainstays of high-level engagement with Beijing. The appointment of a new US ambassador to Beijing therefore came at a sensitive time.
It was made necessary by the unexpected resignation of one of Obama's more successful appointments, Chinese-American Gary Locke. His successor, Democratic senator Max Baucus, 72, may not connect with younger Chinese like his youthful 63-year-old predecessor. Locke not only handled sensitive political issues well but his no-frills lifestyle and openness about his assets drew favourable comparisons with secretive party officials and their perks and privileges.
But Baucus' appointment should please his future hosts, given that he played a significant part in America's effort in the 1990s to achieve China's membership of the World Trade Organisation, one of the pillars of its stellar economic growth in the 21st century. It continues the emphasis on trade and economic relations that has marked the Obama administration's approach to China, with Locke having been secretary for commerce in the Obama administration.
Baucus is a six-term senator who has been his party's leading voice on trade policy since 2001. Moreover, in that time he has cultivated his ties with China through at least eight visits, including one during which he met then vice-president Xi Jinping , now Communist Party leader. Baucus is said to reflect the administration's views on how to approach relations with China, including currency and intellectual property issues as well as human rights. Although he has been a critic of the latter, China will appreciate the posting of such a senior and skilled politician with solid credentials in the crucially important economic and financial relationship with the US.