Max Baucus: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Jan 28 , 2021

Max Baucus, Former Ambassador to China and Former U.S. Senator from Montana.


Thank you, Fred. I think we all agree that, ultimately, much better people-to-people exchanges at all levels is the foundation of a very sound bilateral relationship. The more we travel back and forth, where we visit each other, the more we’re going to start to keep the politicians honest — keep them on their toes. Frankly, my judgment of politicians is that government officials in both countries often get in the way, kind of stir things up, stir up nationalism. It makes it difficult for people to want to come to you, or to want to go visit the other. 

Now to be fair, the world has changed a lot in the last several years. China has become so large — 1.4. billion people. Its military budget expanded at a rapid rate. And I think that somewhat frightens Americans. Americans are wondering where is China going? What are China's intentions and the consequences? It’s become somewhat politically correct in the United States to be fearful of China or critical of China. And today about 73 percent of Americans, according to a Pew survey of adults, have an unfavorable view of China. 

So the question is, what can we do about all that? I think all the exchanges that have been suggested are helpful. Some of us have participated in many of them and all the government-level exchanges. There have been lots of strictly people-to-people exchanges — students visit each other’s country, although that category is mostly one way. There are 300,000 Chinese students who go to the U.S. and 20,000 come to China. It’s just about the same thing with tourists. When I was in the embassy, 3 million Chinese tourists visited the U.S. and various states.

Frankly, I think all these ideas of exchanges are good, but to be honest about it, it’s going to be difficult for Americans to want to visit China (I’m talking about tourists and even academics) and maybe even vice versa, until both countries indicate to the other that they in fact want to work with the other — and not just by words but by deeds. The United States is going to have to show to China by action that it does not want to put China down, that it is not trying to stop China’s rise, but rather that it wants to work with China. That’s a lot of actions the United States government would have to undertake. 

The same thing goes back to China. You know a lot of Americans are frightened of China. What are China’s intentions? What does China want to be, if not a world hegemon? Does China want to be a hegemon in the Indo-Pacific? The Americans just don’t know. They’re afraid. And part of that is complicated with the system and national security technologies — and advances in other technologies, where one country could perhaps gain advantage over the other. It makes it much more complicated. 

So in my judgment, China must show — not by words but by deeds — to the United States and the world that it does not want to be a world hegemon. It does not intend to be Indo-Pacific hegemon. Rather it wants to just be working with U.S. on certain global issues like COVID, climate change and others we can think of, and compete on a so-called level playing field with the United States and other countries. 

Now there’s a concern in the United States that China does a lot of talking but not much doing — I say I’ll do something but then don’t. So that’s why I focus so much on actions and deeds, as opposed to words. And the more China shows, not just says, it shows that it does, in fact, really want to work with the United States — by actions — whether on security, trade, global health or whatnot. That’s going to go a long long way. It’s going to start to reduce some of the fear that exists in the United States with respect to China. It’s going to undermine some of the statements that very conservative senators make about China. It’s going to make it more difficult for them, because China will show that those claims are not valid. 

So I’ve made this point many times in many forums, but I still think it’s very, very true. Until I see it’s not true, until I see actions that indicate China wants to work with the rest, I’ll just keep on with it, with that message, because I think it’s a key, so long as United States also shows that it does not want to stop China’s rise, and would rather work with China to find the respect we all talk about.