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Foreign Policy

Three Suggestions for Ambassador Max Baucus

Mar 17 , 2014
  • Zheng Wang

    Director of Center for Peace and Conflict Studies

Senator Max Baucus is the third ambassador President Obama sent to China. We hope it will be approved as a good pick. Unfortunately, Obama’s first two picks have been proved to be unsuccessful, from either a U.S. or Chinese perspectives. Ambassador Baucus’ two predecessors Jon Huntsman and Gary Locke share some similarities: they both had short tenures, and both have their own political ambitions and used the ambassadorship as a platform for their future political careers. Jon Huntsman aimed at the White House while he was ambassador in China. Driven by the presidential dream, he tried hard to

Zheng Wang

Obviously Ambassador Baucus should draw lessons from his two predecessors. I have three suggestions for him:

1. Be an ambassador, just an ambassador.

For an ambassador to any country, their main job should be to manage communication and promote cooperation between the two governments and two countries. The role of a good ambassador is to serve as a messenger, bridge and translator between his country and the other government. Indeed in some instances, they need to challenge the host government in the interest of their own country. However, they should never forget their main job stationed in another country is to serve as an envoy between the two countries. Even if the two countries are in bad relationship or even in conflict, the role of the ambassador is still to serve as a contact point between the both sides. To be a challenger, preacher, or anti-dictatorship hero is not the job of an ambassador.

A good ambassador should know how to keep a good relationship with the other government, especially the ministry of foreign affairs, because he or she needs to be working with this agency on a daily basis. He or she should also know how to establish relationships and gain trust at a personal level with the key officers from the other side. An effective ambassador should avoid becoming engulfed in controversies. Former Ambassador Gary Locke was famous and influential in China; however if recognition mainly comes from controversial remarks and action, then it is not good for his position as a representative of the U.S. Compared with Gary Locke and Jon Huntsman, former U.S. Ambassador to China, Clark Randt, was quiet and always kept a low profile during his eight year term in Beijing. However, this eight years also happened to be the smoothest and most stable period of time for the U.S.-China bilateral relationship since the establishment of the formal diplomatic relationship in 1979.  Therefore, Ambassador Baucus should definitely learn both the good and bad lessons from his predecessors.

2. Be super sensitive to China-Japan relations and several other tri-lateral relations.

The rising tension between China and Japan is also a major challenge to U.S.-China relations, as any conflict between these two countries automatically pulls in the United States. Therefore a priority for Ambassador Baucus should be how to manage the tri-lateral relationship. Although Washington has never been a neutral third party between the two Asian neighbors, it should, and can be consistent and sophisticated in handling the quarrel. Even though the U.S. may not want to be a mediator between the two, it should and could be a good facilitator, messenger, and balancer. Where the door of dialogue has been closed between the top leaders of China and Japan, it is even more important the U.S. and its ambassador to Beijing to play the role as the messenger between the two sides. Ambassador Baucus should also be cautious when making any comments or remarks regarding sensitive issues, especially between China and Japan.

Ambassador Baucus should also be sensitive of several other triangle relationships including the U.S.-China relationship with Russia, North Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.In all of these sensitive relationships, the U.S. ambassador should help the Chinese side to better understand U.S. policies and to avoid any other unnecessary misunderstandings or misperceptions. Ambassador Baucus has rich experience in handling trade and financial issues, but relatively lacks experience in security and geopolitical issues. He should listen from the experts, and may ask Washington to provide a good deputy to fill any diplomatic or historical knowledge which he may lack regarding the U.S.-China relations.

3. Be a good contact point between Xi and Obama.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is no doubt the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. Therefore, it should also be another priority for Ambassador Baucus to keep a good working relationship with the new Chinese leader. Nowadays many people compare the relations between U.S.-China as the “Group of Two.” That then makes the relationship between Obama and Xi naturally very important not only to the two countries. It should no doubt be a priority for the U.S. ambassador to help keep them in a good working relationship. To a certain extent, the role of the U.S. ambassador is somehow like the role of secretary of a management committee. He should work to keep the efficient functioning of the communication and cooperation inside the committee. Therefore the ambassador should have good secretary qualities, such as reliable, efficient, flexible, tactful and patient. Suppose Obama and Xi are frequently distracted by domestic and global issues, the ambassador should be able to draw their attention and make them focus on the U.S.-China issues when necessary. He should also establish personal relationship with Xi and his main aides.

Let us wish Ambassador Baucus’ good luck and success. Indeed, his success belongs to the interest of both the United States and China.

Dr. Zheng Wang is the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations of Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He is also a Global Fellow at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He can be reached at

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