BILLINGS – Lola Raska still remembers the day U.S. Sen. Max Baucus showed up at the back door of her Great Falls farm with the Chinese ambassador Li Zhaoning in tow.
Baucus was attempting to sell the Chinese on U.S. wheat. Raska’s 2,500-acre farm was to serve as the backdrop for the Montana Democrat’s pitch. It was 1999. The two men proceeded to Raska’s living room, which Zhaoning stated was bigger than his family home, then onto the porch where Raska remembers the two men signing a minor deal.
Now the executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers, Raska was thinking Wednesday about that day in her living room.
News was leaking out that President Barack Obama would nominate Baucus to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. Baucus was insistent during that 1999 trip that trade was the key to unlocking other differences between China and the United States.
“Trade will help us begin to solve some of the other issues – open the channels to solve them,” Baucus told farmers that day. That seemed like his strongest playing card Friday when Obama confirmed the nomination.
“He’s been involved with trade issues since he’s been in Congress, especially as chairman of Senate Finance. He’s worked with Asian countries in particular,” Raska said.
The consensus among Montanans familiar with Baucus’ trade work is that he brings a lot to the ambassadorship at a time when China is experiencing an unprecedented rise in economic and political power.
“We’re in a period where the U.S. is the largest economy in the world; China is the second-largest economy in the world. In this relationship, it is absolutely critical to have someone of Senator Baucus’ stature there,” said Abraham Kim, director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. Located at the University of Montana, the congressionally created center specializes in U.S.-Asian relations. “This really puts a heavyweight in Beijing.”
Kim said Baucus’ 36 years in the Senate and his powerful position as chairman of the Senate finance committee should play well in China. Energy and climate are the two most important issues with which Asia is currently dealing. Baucus has experience with both.
Baucus also understands several of the region’s sticky political issues. He’s played a key role in developing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free-trade agreement spurred partly by Asian countries trying to force strong trade partnerships to counterbalance China’s rapidly accelerating economic clout.
China has its own multination trade plan to compete with the U.S.-backed TPP.
“I’ve been to China with him,” said Arnie Sherman, Montana World Trade Center director and president of Global Development Services, an international representational advisory firm. “I don’t think there’s a better American to represent U.S. interests in China than Max Baucus, just for the understanding (of) the Chinese mentality.
“They respect seniority in the country. He is held in high regard by the leadership of China and even average people in China know the name of Max Baucus.”
Sherman said Baucus has never shied from pushing Montana export interests, like the ban on U.S. beef, when visiting China, but he’s also taken on other issues head on, like video piracy.
In Asia, Baucus has done very well. He played a key role in passing a free trade agreement with South Korea, insisting that differences over U.S. beef be ironed out before the agreement was considered by the Senate. He also supported normalized trade relations with Singapore, Vietnam and China.
Last year, Baucus swung through Japan on a return trip from New Zealand and persuaded the Japanese to ease their age restrictions on U.S. beef, which lost a $1.4 billion-a-year market in 2003 when the American product was banned by Japan over concerns about mad cow disease. Japan said it would review its age restriction within weeks of Baucus’ visit.
In 2011, Baucus played a role in passing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which also required reforms in human rights and labor conditions. The trade agreement was the first step.
When former Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield was ambassador to Japan, “there was no country more important to the United States than Japan. Now it’s China,” Sherman said. “This is the perfect, fitting crown on his professional career.”