Max Baucus

Retiring Montana Sen. Max Baucus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to become US ambassador to China. Tuesday's hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a switch for the six-term Democrat from Montana. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus is used to vetting nominees. On Tuesday he will be answering questions. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Pablo Martinez Monsivais

HELENA – Former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., soon will be taking up his duties as U.S. ambassador in China, a State Department spokesman said.

He will succeed former Ambassador Gary Locke, who departed from Beijing on Saturday, said the State Department official, who asked not to be quoted by name. He did not say specifically when Baucus would assume his duties as ambassador in China.

Baucus resigned from the Senate on Feb. 6, shortly after the chamber voted 96-0 to confirm him.

He was sworn in as ambassador on Feb. 21 by Vice President Joe Biden at a closed-door ceremony at the State Department.

President Barack Obama had announced his intent to nominate Baucus for the post in December and formally sent Baucus’ nomination to the Senate on Jan. 7.

Since leaving the Senate, Baucus has been participating in what is commonly referred to as “ambassador school” for ambassador-designates to learn more about the country to which they have been assigned.

Baucus has drawn criticism for answering a question at his confirmation hearing by saying, “I’m no real expert on China.”

However, he has visited China eight times on trade missions and, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was considered an expert on trade issues.

Baucus has been “consulting widely within the State Department and numerous other federal agencies to prepare for his assignment,” the State Department official said in response to a question. “He is also meeting with people outside of government, including business leaders, China scholars, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and others with an interest in and experience with China.”

Baucus will not do any interviews with the reporters “before he presents his credentials in Beijing,” the official said.

In April 2013, Baucus surprised national and state political observers by announcing he wouldn’t seek election to a seventh Senate term in 2014. He had been aggressively raising money for a re-election campaign until shortly before his announcement.

Baucus told the State Bureau last month that the opportunity to serve as ambassador to China would be “a whole new adventure.”

“And it’s so important,” he said. “I think that how well we Americans and the Chinese manage this relationship between our two countries will, more than the relationship of any two other countries in the world, determine the quality of life of Americans, of Chinese and the quality of life, in some respects, of most people in the world, certainly in the Pacific.”

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

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