The US Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to approve US President Barack Obama’s nomination of Senator Max Baucus, who has helped steer trade policy with China, as ambassador to Beijing.
The Senate voted 96-0, with Baucus voting present, to confirm the 72-year-old Montana Democrat to the high-profile appointment.
Baucus holds one of the most powerful positions in the Senate as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax and trade policy.
He took a firm stance against some of China’s trade practices, but also led successful US efforts in the 1990s to help China’s admission to the WTO and to begin normal trade relations with Beijing.
During Baucus’ confirmation hearing last week, senators expressed concerns about China’s territorial ambitions and urged him to take a tough line with Beijing. Baucus said he would be “fair, but firm.”
Baucus has little direct experience with the security and military issues that are a growing concern in US relations with China.
In an emotional farewell speech after the confirmation vote, Baucus promised to build a stronger relationship with China.
“The relationship between the US and China is one of the most important in the world, and we, both China and the United States, need to get it right,” he said.
China’s Xinhua news agency largely welcomed Baucus’ confirmation, describing him in a commentary as a “well-received candidate,” but said more political trust was needed between Washington and Beijing.
“The bilateral relationship will be more smooth and fruitful when China does not feel the US threat of containment and when the US finds no ulterior Chinese motive to undermine its global leadership,” Xinhua said.
Republicans and Democrats made speeches praising Baucus, who has been a senator since December 1978.
His departure sets off a shift in leadership of at least two important Senate committees.
Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden is expected to be the new leader of the US Senate Finance Committee, leaving his current position as Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock has not yet said who he will appoint as temporary successor to fill Baucus’ seat until his term expires in January next year. Since Bullock is also a Democrat, the appointment should not shift the balance of power in the Senate, where Democrats control 55 of the 100 seats.