In his first month as U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus barely had time to settle in before he was called to high profile meetings with both Chinese and American officials. During those first weeks in Bejing, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, escorted First Lady Michelle Obama during her visit to China and took part in top-level meetings on security issues with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his tour. Not to mention the Boao forum in Hainan.
Baucus, who represented Montana for more than three decades in the United States Congress, replaced Gary Locke as ambassador on Feb. 21. The new top envoy is taking up the position at a time when both President Xi Jinping and Barack Obama have made clear the need to improve understanding of each other’s priorities. The Ambassador inherits an inbix with plenty to do, ranging from differences over cyber-security, improving military cooperation, finding more common ground on Iran and Syria, and reducing tensions from China’s maritime disputes with Japan and several ASEAN countries.
At his confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, Baucus said he was working on a list of priorities if confirmed as ambassador but identified three goals.
“The first is to strengthen our economic relationship with China in a way that is mutually beneficial and ensures a level playing field for American businesses and workers to compete fairly with their Chinese counterparts,” he told the senators.
The next priority named was to “partner with China to tackle common global challenges, while also urging China to support the laws, the norms, the values and human rights that undergird the current international system from which we all benefit.”
The ambassador said his third goal is to promote strong “people-to-people ties between us, including students, tourists, business people, and others.”
While most U.S. executives in China would agree with the ambassador on his top goals, they may agree more with another issue the Montanan pointed out: healthcare, intellectual property rights and market access.
At the hearing, he also cited regional security – mainly North Korea and Iran as key concerns, along global priorities “such as cyber security, climate change, wildlife trafficking, pandemic disease, transnational law enforcement, clean energy.”
In his farewell address to his colleagues in the Senate earlier this year, Baucus said that in his youth he hitch-hiked through Europe, Africa and Asia including Hong Kong, and declared the experience was instrumental in his decision to seek out a life in public service and made him even more pleased to take up his new role in China.
“The U.S. China bilateral relationship, I believe, is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. It will shape global affairs for generations, we must get it right,” he said.
Baucus, 72, was nominated to the post after he announced his intention not to seek reelection to the Senate. A running enthusiast, he half-jokingly said he was planning to take part in the Beijing marathon.
While the senators were mostly cordial during the hearing, they cautioned the nominee to try to understand China’s real intentions when it comes to issues where differences may exist between China and the U.S.
Sen. Robert Menendez, for example, identified cyber security and IPR issues, an issue AmCham Shanghai members also consider important.
“China will benefit more in the future the more China protects its own intellectual property and follows more rules based solutions,” Baucus said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), stressed that China wants to be the “dominant” force in Asia, pointing to the country’s “aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea and referring to territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and other neighboring countries.
“The construction and acquisition of an aircraft carrier is a statement of a desire to be able to project power,” McCain said. “The role that China is playing in Asia today should be of great concern to all of us.”
Baucus reiterated that he was aware of those concerns and stressed the need for constructive dialogue to improve ties.
“The overarching goal here I think is for us to engage China with eyes wide open, to try to find common ground,” he said.