- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
With China increasingly demanding to be seen as an equal to the United States, the White House has selected the next steward of its most important, most complicated bilateral relationship. According to media reports, Max Baucus, the influential Democratic senator from Montana, is set to become the next U.S. ambassador to China.
While the implications of Baucus’ selection are still unclear, here are three potential consequences of a Baucus ambassadorship:
1. It could enable the White House to take more control of the U.S.-China relationship:
In his new role as ambassador, Baucus will replace former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who will step down in early 2014 and who was preceded by former Utah Governor and presidential candidate John Huntsman. A respected Democratic voice, Baucus is not necessarily a lower profile pick than his predecessors, and he has already met with Chinese President Xi Jinping several times. Where he does differ, especially from Huntsman, is his near total lack of experience in security issues. "It’s an interesting [pick] in the sense that security competition with China is heating up and he doesn’t have much of a record" on security issues, said Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. While Baucus will certainly get up to speed, he’s probably less likely than his predecessors to interfere with the White House and the Pentagon on military or political issues.
2. It could improve Beijing’s relationship with Congress:
Chinese leaders have always been more comfortable dealing with U.S. presidents — who have a job that’s roughly analogous to their own — than with members of Congress. "They don’t really know what to make of Congress, because it’s this cacophony of people with many of them influential on different things," said Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist with Silvercrest Asset Management, who formerly taught economics at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Baucus, who’s been in the Senate for 35 years, could help smooth over concerns in Congress about Chinese investment in the United States and unfair trade practices against U.S. companies in China. "Having someone who understands that side of the U.S. government and is influential and has those connections," is probably a good thing for the economic side of the relationship, Chovanec said.
3. It’s an uncontroversial and unsexy choice for China:
Trade is always an easier bilateral issue for Beijing to deal with than military and security matters or questions of human rights. An October 2010 press release from his Senate office titled "Baucus Presses Top Chinese Officials to Address Trade Concerns, Open Market to Montana Beef" was likely not an issue of concern for Chinese officials. Baucus is a soft-spoken Senate dealmaker who was instrumental in ushering President Obama’s signature healthcare overhaul through Congress. An introvert rather than a show man, he is less likely to anger Beijing by building a personal relationship with the Chinese people — which his predecessors made a point of doing. Photos of Locke flying to Beijing coach class, carrying his own luggage, and waiting in line at a Starbucks went viral in China, because of the contrast they highlighted with corrupt Chinese officials. Huntsman famously rode his motorcycle through the streets of Shanghai and would occasionally ride a bicycle to meetings at the Chinese foreign ministry. Baucus will probably keep a lower profile.
The news Wednesday night hit China’s Internet as most of the country was waking up — it’s 13 hours ahead — and Chinese news sites are so far just reporting the story without offering any additional commentary. The small number of Chinese netizens who have commented on the appointment have focused largely on Baucus’ age. In China, the unofficial retirement age for top politicians is 70, and none of the members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member body that rules the country, is over the age of 68.
With reporting by Liz Carter.