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Wanted: US Ambassador To China

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China Power

Wanted: US Ambassador To China

As Gary Locke steps down, it’s time to think about what the U.S. needs from its next ambassador to China.

Wanted: US Ambassador To China
Credit: flickr/Center For American Progress

Gary Locke recently announced that he will step down from his post as U.S. Ambassador to China in 2014. Locke, the first Chinese-American to ever head the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, was something of a divisive figure in China. He may be best known there for his low-key nature, which many netizens loved to contrast with Chinese officials’ luxurious tastes. News of Locke buying economy-class plane tickets and opting out of five-star hotels caught fire on China’s social media outlets. In summing up his reputation, Beijing News gave Locke credit for spreading “American values.”

Yet Locke also occasionally came under fire from Chinese media, especially when the U.S. Embassy was negotiating with Beijing over the fate of dissident Chen Guangcheng. Media at the time flamed the United States in general and Locke specifically for interfering in China’s domestic affairs. In a particularly vitriolic attack, the Beijing Daily accused Locke of trying to “stir up conflict” and of subverting the role of an ambassador.

Fortunately, the incident did no lasting damage to either U.S.-China relations or Locke’s reputation. In a final analysis of Locke’s term, an article in the Global Times said that Locke was a “normal” U.S. ambassador. This, of course, begs the question of what a “normal” U.S. ambassador is, and whether Obama’s administration should be content with that standard as they seek a replacement for Locke.

Under Obama, both ambassadors had heavy economic experience. Jon Huntsman served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative in the 1990s. Gary Locke was Obama’s Secretary of Commerce before being appointed ambassador, and in Obama’s mind that seems to have been the only necessary qualification. With Locke as ambassador, “I know that American companies will be able to count on him to represent their interests in front of China’s top leaders,” Obama said when announcing Locke’s nomination.

That approach might have served the U.S. back in the 1990s, when U.S.-China relations focused almost exclusively on trade. Today, with the U.S. and  China interacting on everything from climate change to nonproliferation, one would hope that the U.S. ambassador to China would be able to do more than argue on behalf of U.S. companies. For example, each of the Chinese ambassadors to the U.S. during Obama’s presidency have been seasoned diplomats from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zhou Wenzhong had previously served as ambassador to Australia, Zhang Yesui had been China’s permanent representative to the UN, and current ambassador Cui Tiankai used to be China’s ambassador to Japan. So why hasn’t Obama appointed someone with a similar amount of diplomatic or at least foreign policy experience to represent the U.S. in Beijing?

Part of the reason is political. As Chas W. Freeman Jr., a long-time veteran of the U.S. State Department and a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, put it in an interview, “The Obama administration has a well-established record of making ambassadorial appointments to reward campaign contributions or to appease domestic special interests without much, if any, regard for their qualifications to do the jobs they have been awarded.” This best example of this might be the recent appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the post of U.S. Ambassador to Japan.

This has not gone unnoticed in China. Professor Jin Canrong of People’s University in Beijing told Beijing News that there are four main qualities a U.S. ambassador must possess: high social status, general capability, extremely close relations with the president, and good connections with both parties in Congress. Note that diplomatic experience, or even general familiarity with the country in question, didn’t make the list.

If that’s the case, it doesn’t inspire confidence that Obama is making the best possible use of his ambassadors. In fact, a recent feature article by Politico suggested that Locke’s assignment as ambassador was more of a political punishment than a reward — a downgrade from the already second-tier position of Commerce Secretary. There have also been rumors that Huntsman was appointed ambassador in part to undermine a potential political challenger. Indeed, Huntsman’s position as ambassador under Obama helped prevent him from gaining the Republican nomination for president in 2012. If the White House is using ambassadorship mainly to reward allies or forestall rivals, it’s fair to wonder if U.S. ambassadors have any influence at all.

Even now, well into Obama’s second term, Freeman believes “it’s not clear that the administration has much idea of how to use ambassadors.”  Ambassadors may not be the most critical components of foreign policy, but they are a resource that should not be wasted. Besides, no matter how low-key the ambassador, events beyond the administration’s control may shove him or her into the spotlight — just as Chen Guangcheng’s request for aid did for Gary Locke. In that case, a seasoned ambassador could be the difference between a mini crisis and a diplomatic disaster.

Even in the absence of historical events, a good ambassador could make a lasting contribution to U.S.-China relations. “At their best,” says Freeman, “ambassadors are sources of ideas for both their own government and the one they work with abroad about how to advance common interests they help both sides to discover. U.S.-China relations need that sort of stimulus.” If the U.S. ambassador to China is to play this role, it would be extremely useful to have background knowledge of China. Someone like former Obama National Security Council member Jeffrey Bader — who is rumored to be in the running for Locke’s post — would come into the job already understanding many of the nuances of U.S.-China relations and foreign policy in general. Let’s hope that Obama’s next pick will have the knowledge and experience to actively elevate U.S.-China relations, as opposed to merely keeping a low profile.