Baucus, China, and the American “Avatar”

The recent incident in the South China Sea has all the earmarks of a situation that, many years later, after the movie version of the event comes out, will prove less “accidental meeting on the high seas due to a logistical misunderstanding” and more “tense showdown of two world powers jockeying for a place in the shifting alliances of world politics.”

Okay, that’s romanticizing things a bit. But the incident did prompt some questions about the state of Sino-U.S. relations (exacerbated by new reports of Western journalists being harassed by Chinese officials) and was quickly followed by news Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) is the presumptive nominee to replace Ambassador Gary Locke in Beijing after his retirement early next year. Which of course prompted the same question from many political reporters and those with an interest in the region: Huh?

Or, as Slate puts it in a teaser for their piece on the issue, “What Does Max Baucus Know About China, Anyway?” Turns out, a fair amount:

But while he’s not exactly a China hand, Baucus does have something of a track record on U.S.-Chinese relations over the 35 years he’s spent in congress. During the early 2000s, he was chair (and is still a member) of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a group that’s generally extremely critical of China on human rights and economic policy.

He has recommended that the United States strongly advocate for human rights in China and beseeched President George W. Bush during a 2002 visit to “urge Chinese authorities to perform a comprehensive review of those imprisoned for counterrevolutionary crimes, to release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience, to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to invite the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom to visit China.”

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he recently co-authored a letter accusing China of undervaluing “its currency, providing an unfair advantage to Chinese exporters and harming U.S. manufacturers and their workers.”  Ahead of WTO meetings in March 2012, he wrote, “China will not end its currency undervaluation unless the U.S. seizes opportunities like this to insist it does.”

Despite these apparent bona fides, the Washington Post still considers him “a strange choice” while acknowledging that his removal from Congress may help Democrats fulfill some of their domestic policy agenda:

But we got a hint today of how the White House thinks about its Asia policy with the news that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will be tapped as the next U.S. ambassador to China. It would not be fair to pre-judge the 72-year-old legislator’s diplomatic abilities before he has a chance to use them. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that pulling Baucus out of the senate helps the White House with some domestic political issues.

But Baucus is not an obvious choice. He is not completely new to China; he’s traveled there to promote trade, something he’s advocated since at least the mid-1990s. But there’s little on his resume that screams “China,” which is unusual both in that there are lots of more obviously qualified candidates and that most U.S. ambassadors to Beijing have had significant ties to the country.

It’s important to remember that, although these appointments are high-profile in countries like China, these ambassadors, if they choose, can be little more than figure heads. The WaPo piece, in fact, acknowledges that these guys tend to be “avatars” of their country of origin, which is to say they are supposed to encompass their countries’ culture and political will:

All that said, it’s entirely possible that Baucus has quietly developed many brilliant ideas for U.S.-China relations that the White House feels outweigh his other shortcomings for the post. And maybe that’s true. But it’s difficult to ignore that would seem to be the simplest explanation, which is that perhaps the Obama administration is just not as fussed about building close ties to the Chinese government and people as it has been previously. But there is at least one long-running problem Baucus could help solve: as China-watcher Damien Ma quipped, his arrival in Beijing “might give the Chinese a better understanding of how congress actually works.”

So, fine. The Obama Administration gets a gadfly out of the way (Baucus has been vocally critical of some pretty high-profile administration babies, one notable example being Obamacare), who has a reasonable resume as regards China, while giving the Chinese people — hungry for their next Western political star — a true progressive who’s been in Congress longer than some staffers on the Hill have been alive.

But, as this pro-Communist Chinese tabloid notes:

In other words, it doesn’t matter who will take office, because these politicians Washington sends to China will not alter the foundation of Sino-US relations, which are shaped by the extensive economic interdependence and geopolitical competition together. Their individual influence on this bilateral tie is limited.

It is too early to make comments on the new ambassador, no matter, if it be Baucus or not. But a breakthrough on mutual trust is what is absent from Sino-US relations. It needs to be included within the next ambassador’s agenda.

Is Baucus the best choice to convince the Chinese people that a trust breakthrough is imminent? More importantly, does the Obama Administration care?

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