Max Baucus nominated as US ambassador to China

Choice reflects Obama's priorities with Beijing, but observers say top players are still lacking

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 4:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:02am


With his appointment of a seasoned Senate free-trader as his new ambassador to Beijing, US President Barack Obama has chosen an emissary who faithfully reflects his priorities with China, which have tended to emphasise jobs and other economic issues.

But Obama still has a way to go to restock the deep China bench he recruited in his first term, raising the larger question of who in the upper ranks of his administration, aside from  himself, will have an influential voice in dealing with  Beijing.

On Friday, Obama formally nominated Democratic Senator Max Baucus as his new envoy, sending a congressional power broker with a history of fighting for US beef exports to Beijing.

"For more than two decades," the president said, "Max Baucus has worked to deepen the relationship between the United States and China."

Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, expects  Beijing to welcome Baucus' appointment, given his stature as a six-term senator and close ties with Obama.

"The economic and financial relationship with China is crucial," Li said. "If that part of the relationship is healthy, it can spill over and have a positive effect in other areas. But if it's jeopardised, it can adversely affect other areas, including on security."

Baucus, however, does not compensate for Timothy Geithner, the former Treasury secretary; Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state; and Tom Donilon, the former national security adviser, whose departures left a palpable gap in terms of high-level engagement with Beijing, according to former officials, diplomats and experts on the relationship. 

"The hunt for the China person in the administration is a scavenger hunt that misses the fundamental point, which is that US-China relations is a team sport and the team captain is President Obama," said Daniel Russel, the assistant US secretary of state for East Asian affairs, previously in charge of Asia policy at the National Security Council.

Still, there is no ranking Obama official who approaches the level of energy or focus on China that Henry Paulson brought as Treasury secretary under president George W. Bush.

"The US is missing a natural go-to person," said Jon Huntsman, who served as Obama's ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011, before leaving to run for the Republican presidential nomination. "On our side, there's a strategy gap, and it's complicated by a leadership void."