Old Colleagues Grill Max Baucus, Nominee for Ambassador to China

January 28, 2014 Updated: February 26, 2014

“I’m no expert on China,” said Senator Max Baucus on Jan. 28, at his Senate confirmation hearing to become Ambassador to China. The frankness of the assessment didn’t seem to cost him too much though, given that Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared towards the end: “You’ve acquitted yourself extraordinarily well.”

Senator Baucus (D-MT), 72, was in late December nominated to be the United States’ next ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. Confirmation is all but certain. He will be arriving in Beijing at a time of enormous tension and strategic import in the relationship between the two powers, and between China and its neighbours — though it is unclear how as Ambassador he will be able to do much to affect that broad course of events.

“Senator Baucus I hope will learn a great deal that he doesn’t yet know,” said Steven I. Levine, a researcher of China at the University of Montana, and also a constituent. 

“He freely admits that he’s not a China expert, which is of course true of many Ambassadors,” Levine said in a telephone interview. “I think given his experience on Capitol Hill and that he’s a senior, well-respected Senator, that he should make a good Ambassador in Beijing.” 

Confirmation hearings are an opportunity for Senators on the relevant committees to pepper with questions the administration’s nominees for important roles; typically the angle of the questioning reflects the personal or political proclivities or interests of the politicians doing the asking. 

What were characterized as the Communist Party’s increasingly belligerent activities in its maritime periphery — the South China Sea and the East China Sea — were a focus of the confirmation hearing on Tuesday. So were human rights. As well as the expected strategic trajectory of the Chinese regime in the years and decades to come. And beef.

“China doesn’t take much American beef right now,” noted Senator Risch (R-ID), one of Baucus’s questioners, pointedly, at the end of remarks about a range of issues characterizing the U.S.-China relationship. 

“The potential disturbances in the East China Sea and the South China Sea are extremely concerning, however I do believe that with very strong, measured, statesmen-like discussions with China, we can minimize potential adverse developments in either of those two oceans,” Baucus responded. “But you have my commitment to work on beef.”

“I care a lot about beef,” Baucus said later.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) hammered Baucus on human rights in China. He read a passage from the book of the late former Ambassador Mark Palmer, “Breaking the Real Axis of Evil,” and asked Baucus whether he thought American embassies abroad should be “islands of freedom.” 

Baucus responded: “Clearly the United States symbolically is an island of freedom. Should the embassy physically be? I’m going to have to take that to work with the administration. I don’t know the policy on that point.”

The matter is something of a sore point for the administration, given that 2012 saw two very high-profile political defections — from the communist city police chief Wang Lijun, and the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng — to American diplomatic facilities in China.

Baucus did emphasize that “we should be there to stand up for human rights and freedom generally in the world.” He said the way to go about doing so, however, is up for debate. “The goal here is to be effective.”

In considering what is an effective strategy to address human rights abuses in China, Steven Levine, the China expert in Montana, suggested that “quiet diplomacy” may not always be the best option. It has been the approach of the U.S. government for the last 15 or more years, he said, but “I haven’t seen any evidence that it has worked.”

Levine added: “I would like Senator Baucus to be more outspoken, and I would like to see the U.S. convince other democratic countries to call the Chinese government to account on these issues. I don’t think the Chinese are impressed by Americans who hold their tongues and tip-toe up to these issues.”

Baucus appeared to support firm U.S. assertion of the status quo arrangements in the region. After the PRC declared a controversial Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, widely seen as a provocative gesture, the U.S. said it flew military aircraft through it without identifying themselves, as a way of asserting that it did not recognize the ADIZ. 

“I applauded B52s flying over that ADIZ,” Baucus said. “It was a very important message that the U.S. sent. It was the right thing to do.”