Max Baucus, Obama's pick for China envoy, no stranger to Beijing

Obama to nominate long-serving senator who has visited China many times at a time of heightened tensions between the two nations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 8:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 3:39am

President Barack Obama has turned to a 72-year-old senator with strong China experience to be his next ambassador to Beijing at a time of heightened tension between the two countries, analysts said yesterday.

Long-serving senator Max Baucus - named by Democratic Party officials as Obama's nominee for the sensitive post - has rich experience dealing with Chinese trade and has visited the country eight times, most recently in 2010 when he met then vice-president Xi Jinping , now the nation's president.

"Baucus has substantial experience and a strong record on trade issues, including with China," said Yun Sun, a US-based research fellow who knows Baucus. "He has been to China many times, so Beijing is definitely no stranger for him."

If confirmed, Baucus would succeed Gary Locke, whose resignation last month after 21/2 years in the job surprised many.

Baucus sidestepped questions about the ambassadorship when asked on Capitol Hill. "It's not for me to comment on … This happens every once in a while. Names get floated around," he said. There was no immediate comment from the White House.

Baucus is a Democrat who has been in the Senate since 1978 and has been the party's leading voice on trade policy since 2001.

"He knows these guys in the Chinese leadership extremely well and has met with them on several occasions," said Jon Selib, Baucus' chief of staff from 2008 to 2012.

He has been to China many times, so Beijing is definitely no stranger for him

In a speech during the 2010 trip, Baucus emphasised his past support for permanent normal trade relations with China and noted the "angry rhetoric" and complaints about "protectionist policies" from both countries.

Obama's search for a new top diplomat in Beijing comes as he executes a so-called Asia pivot in US foreign policy to more directly counter China. The relationship has grown more troubled in recent weeks.

"The appointment suggested Obama has attached great importance to US-China relations," said Tao Wenzhao , a US affairs expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of American Studies, citing Baucus' significant role in and contribution to the US effort in the 1990s to bring China into the World Trade Organisation and to establish permanent normal trade relations between the two countries.

Some analysts said that Baucus shares the administration's views on how to approach delicate US-China relations, including how China sets its currency, addresses intellectual property issues, as well as labour and human rights policies.

In June, he was among a group of senators who raised concerns about a plan by Chinese meat company Shuanghui International to buy US pork firm Smithfield Foods, citing national security and food safety interests.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying yesterday made only a vague statement that Beijing welcomed anyone who helped promote mutual trust. But mainland microblog platforms were filled with posts yesterday about whether the 72-year-old could survive Beijing's notorious smog.

One even suggested giving the senator the Chinese name Bao Kesi, which means "cough until you die" in Putonghua.

Reporting by Bloomberg, Reuters, Agence France-Presse


The Max Baucus résumé

December 11, 1941: Born in Helena, Montana

1967: Graduated from Stanford University Law School

1973-1974: Served in the Montana house of representatives;

1975-1978: Served as a representative in Congress

1978-present: Served as a senator, chairman of Environment and Public Works Committee from 1993 to 1995; served on Senate Finance Committee since 1979 and as chairman in 2001- 2003, 2007-2009; reappointed this year

2001-2013: Joint Taxation Committee chairman from 2011 to 2013, vice-chairman in 2001-2003, 2009-2011; reappointed this year

October 2010: Week-long visit to Beijing and Shanghai, meeting then vice-president Xi Jinping, then vice-premier Wang Qishan

April 2013: Baucus announced he would not seek a seventh term as a senator next year