The incumbent is former US secretary of commerce Gary Locke. As the first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing, Locke has been a well-known and generally well-liked figure in China. He created a buzz among ordinary Chinese even before he arrived in Beijing after he was photographed wearing a backpack and trying to use a coupon to buy coffee at Seattle’s airport.
Many Chinese Internet users pointed out the contrast with Chinese bureaucrats, who routinely have aides carry their bags and attend to minor tasks.
Locke has navigated choppy waters in the relationship, notably when dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng sought refuge in the US embassy on the eve of high-level US-China talks in Beijing last year. China subsequently allowed Chen to leave for New York, and the talks proceeded.
The latest turbulence has centered on China pressing its territorial claim against US ally Japan in the East China Sea. China’s effort to control air space in the region was criticized this week by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said it “clearly increases the risk of a dangerous miscalculation or an accident.”
Given the prickly state of the relationship, Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, voiced surprise that Obama did not select an envoy with more clout on hard security issues.
She said the nomination of Baucus reflected the president’s tendency to focus on the economic aspects of the relationship with China, as he seeks to boost exports and reduce unemployment at home.
His administration wants to “level the playing field” for American companies: curb cybercrime and theft of intellectual property and improve market access, particularly in the heavily restricted services sector. The US has welcomed China’s intent to open state-dominated industries wider to private competition and ease limits on foreign investment.
Erin Ennis, vice president of the US-China Business Council, said a key US priority for Baucus should be to negotiate a strong bilateral investment treaty. She said discussions on a text are expected to start early next year, and as new ambassador, Baucus could help China understand what it will take for an agreement to win US Senate ratification.