The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Sen. Max Baucus is a strange choice for U.S. ambassador to China

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The phrase "pivot to Asia" has become more punchline than policy in the years since the Obama administration first announced it would be refocusing U.S. foreign policy more intently on East Asia. The many setbacks have typically been due to events outside of the administration's control, such as turmoil in the Middle East, that distracted from the long-term goals in Asia.

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.

Past ambassadors to China have often spoken fluent Chinese. This includes Obama-appointed Ambassador John Huntsman; Obama's second ambassador, Gary Locke, did not speak Chinese but is Chinese-American, which turned out to be a diplomatic asset in its own way. There are lots of countries where the U.S. ambassadors do not speak the language. But China, owing to its challenge as a diplomatic post and its importance to the United States, has traditionally been different. The office was has been held by fluent Chinese-speakers from 1981 through 1995 and again from 2001 through 2011.

Of course, speaking Chinese does not in and of itself determine whether or not someone will be a good ambassador to China. George H.W. Bush did not speak Chinese when he took the job in 1974. But the point is that it's not like becoming, say, U.S. ambassador to Australia, which typically goes to political allies or major campaign fundraisers. It's not the gold watch you get at the end of your career. It is your career.

There is one major, obvious precedent for the Baucus pick: former ambassador Jim Sasser, who served from 1996 to 1999 and was previously a U.S. senator from Tennessee. Like Baucus, Sasser had little obvious connection to China and did not speak the language. His tenure is generally regarded favorably, having overseen several turbulent and difficult years in U.S.-China relations. President Clinton signed an historic trade deal with China a few months after Sasser left the post.

The post in Beijing is, for an ambassador, unusually difficult and unusually high-profile. It's a job prone to high-stakes, high-risk crises, like attempted defection of Wang Lijun and the successful flight of Chen Guangcheng, both in 2012.

All ambassadors try to reach out to the host country's general population, but in China it's practically a national demand. The last two American ambassadors there have been treated as something like avatars for the United States, appearing frequently in the media and subject to wide discussion on social media. Previous ambassador Gary Locke was something of a celebrity in China, which had real implications for U.S. soft power in the country. While the quality of Huntsman's Chinese was a subject of much debate, it could be often heard on Chinese media and in lecture halls. Baucus's record of trade-promotion trips no doubt gave him some good practice at speaking to Chinese officials, but what about the billion-plus Chinese citizens, an awful lot of whom are very curious about the U.S. and its role in their country?

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."