Sizing Up Ambassador Baucus

December 24, 2013 Last Updated: December 24, 2013

Since Max Baucus, the six-term Montana Senator, was named to replace Gary Locke as the next U.S. ambassador to China, observers have tried to guess what kind of job he would do representing American interests. No firm conclusion can be drawn until the senator is seen in action in Beijing, which hasn’t stopped the ongoing discussions.

The appointment has its associated concerns — putting aside jokes about the 72-year-old senator’s health in Beijing’s smoggy air, Sen. Baucus, who has never served on a committee that deals with foreign policy or national security, is no career diplomat.

Some fear that he may not be up to the task of representing American interests in issues such as the ongoing maritime disputes that involve U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Described by the Wall Street Journal as “more steeped in international trade,” the appointment of Sen. Baucus may reflect broader American economic concerns with respect to China, such as the $300 billion annual U.S. trade deficit with the country, or Chinese state policies and practices that conflict with American and international standards.

Sen Baucus has criticized China for undervaluing its currency, which gives Chinese exporters “an unfair advantage” and brings harm to American firms and workers, as expressed in a recent letter he co-authored as current chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The senator has also supported a U.S. complaint at the WTO against China’s restrictions on the export of rare earth metals.

The senator has previously expressed his concern for China’s poor human rights situation. In 2002, he urged former president George W. Bush 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.”

However, just how strong a stand Baucus is willing to take is debatable.

Though he has voted for various bills in the last ten years that targeted China’s currency policy, economists say that none of the legislation would have compelled the United States to actually apply sanctions to penalize China.

The fact that the senator has not established himself as a currency hawk in Congress could ease his dealings with Chinese officials.

Bringing his expertise closer to home, the senator, in a 2010 visit to General Secretary Xi Jinping, raised concerns about Chinese restrictions on U.S. beef exports, saying, “China’s unfounded and unscientific barriers on U.S. beef are unfairly impeding American exports and hurting hardworking Montana ranchers, and we can’t stand for it.”

According to his website, Baucus has been to China eight times to “boost trade opportunities” for Montana’s economy. In 2011, he said: “Montana businesses, ranchers and farmers are hurting because China has refused to play by the rules.”