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With the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s confirmation Tuesday of Max Baucus as the next ambassador to China, Montana will soon see one of its longest-seated senators take up a key position in U.S. foreign and trade relations.

But it isn’t the first time a senior senator from Montana has retired to play a vital role representing U.S. interests in East Asia.

In a video interview, Abraham Kim, director of the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, addressed at length some of the key tasks associated with the ambassadorship, why the job is so important to the nation and the state of Montana, and some of the top issues Baucus will encounter in his new post.

“This position is particularly important because it is dealing with China,” Kim said, “one of our most important relationships diplomatically, particularly in Asia, with China being our largest trade partner, as well as a country that plays a significant role on the global stage.”

Kim articulated three main roles played by the ambassador to China. First, Baucus will be the senior diplomatic representative of the government of the United States to China. As such, he will be the face of U.S. policies and national interests in China.

Second, he will be the face of America to the Chinese people. Third, the ambassador will be looked to as the key person to generate ideas about U.S.-China relations.

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There is no shortage of issues Baucus will have to face. Security concerns in the region are numerous and include China’s interests and activity in the South China Sea, tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and nuclear proliferation in North Korea.

But the ambassador will also have to negotiate difficult economic issues of trade imbalances, currency and intellectual property disputes.

As for comparisons with an earlier Montana senator, Kim said: “I think it’s very significant that we are sending another Montana politician to Asia to serve as its senior diplomat in the region. Senator (Mike) Mansfield, after serving many years as the majority leader, retired from the Senate in 1977 to become the U.S. ambassador to Japan and served there for 11 years. Now we’re sending Senator Baucus after serving almost 40 years in the Senate.”

Kim elaborated on why Baucus was chosen for the position, highlighting the importance in past appointments of people with significant experience in U.S. trade and finance policy. Baucus’ position as chair of the Senate Finance Committee makes him an ideally suited candidate for the position, Kim said.

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Leland Buck is the Missoulian's Online Editor. Follow @lelandbuck on Twitter or reach him at leland.buck@missoulian.com or 406-523-5212 

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