The United States’ new ambassador to China, Max Baucus, has wasted no time in getting started—in part out of necessity. Baucus arrived in Beijing on Monday and First Lady Michelle Obama will be following close on his heels, as she will begin her own tour of China on March 20. Upon his arrival in Beijing, Baucus told reporters that he is proud to be the U.S. Ambassador to China and excited to begin his work in China. “I want to be part of managing this relationship,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Baucus as saying. “We simply must get it right.” Easier said than done, of course.
As Baucus himself infamously pointed out during his confirmation hearing, he’s “no real expert on China.” In some ways, Baucus was (as his staff later argued) simply being modest. As a U.S. Senator for nearly 40 years, Baucus’ experiences on the Finance Committee have given him more than a little experience dealing with China. However, Baucus is also not a “China hand,” in that he hasn’t spent time specializing in China studies. Instead, Baucus is accustomed to dealing with a broader range of foreign policy issues, seen mostly through the lens of trade and finance.
For better or worse, that puts him in good company among Obama’s previous ambassadors to China. Jon Huntsman had more than a passing familiarity with China before taking up his post—he had served as a missionary in Taiwan, where he learned to speak Mandarin. Huntsman had also held the post of Ambassador to Singapore, giving him diplomatic experience and connections in the region. But even Huntsman had not specialized on China issues. By way of comparison, Huntsman’s predecessor, Ambassador Clark T. Randt Jr., had lived in Beijing and Hong Kong for 20 years before becoming the U.S. Ambassador to China.
Likewise, Locke had built up relationships with Chinese officials while serving as Obama’s Secretary of Commerce. Even while Locke was still serving as Governor of Washington, he had already become popular in China as a high-ranking U.S. politician of Chinese descent. But Locke was also not a China hand—unlike Randt or Huntsman (and like Baucus), he does not even speak Mandarin.
What all these men do have in common, though, are extensive backgrounds in finance and trade. Huntsman previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative; Locke was the Secretary of Commerce. Even Randt’s extensive China experience was mostly financial. Baucus, as the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee for the past seven years, has extensive experience in trade relations from the legislative side.
Baucus’ goals for developing U.S.-China relations clearly showed this preference for the financial aspects. According to Reuters, Baucus had made managing the U.S.-China economic relationship his top priority. His first goal “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.”
Though United States officials frequently refer to U.S.-China relations as one of the most (if not simply the most) important bilateral relationships in the world, the insistence on sending ambassadors with a background in economics and trade is telling. China’s ambassadors to the U.S. are generally heavy-hitters in the foreign policy realm—from Yang Jiechi, Beijing’s ambassador from 2000-2004 who currently serves as State Councilor, to current ambassador Cui Tiankai, who has a degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and previously served as China’s Ambassador to Japan.
Today, the United States and China are increasingly cooperating on or competing in everything from the military sphere to environmental protection. It’s odd that Washington continues to place the economic relationship above all else by repeatedly choosing men with similar backgrounds in finance and trade to serve as the U.S. representative in Beijing.
Ironically, the economic aspect of U.S.-China relationship is arguably the least in need of special attention. It’s far better developed than other areas of interaction, especially military ties. Plus, both Washington and Beijing can rest assure that business interests in each country will make sure the relationship continues to progress.
Though trade issues remain, tensions over IP protection and market access won’t lead to conflict between the U.S. and China. On the other hand, the complex geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific right now could spark a disastrous confrontation between the two powers. Why the Obama administration continues to appoint ambassadors well-versed in the former but not the latter is puzzling, to say the least.