Baucus set to become next ambassador to China

Sen. Max Baucus appears to be on a glide path to become the next ambassador to China. 

The Montana Democrat laid out a broad agenda during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It focused on promoting economic cooperation, security and human rights issues between the United States and China.

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"It is imperative that America be deeply involved in the Asia-Pacific," Baucus said. 

The panel is expected to vote on Feb. 4, and there were plenty of signals from lawmakers that he would be easily confirmed. 

"The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. It will shape global affairs for generations to come," Baucus told the panel.

"We must get it right."

As head of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus has promoted expanded trade between the two countries and said he plans to continue working to improve that "geopolitical" relationship.

His goals include everything from ensuring Beijing follows global trade rules to better protecting U.S. intellectual property.

"I have learned some core lessons along the way,” he said.

"Among the most important, I have become a firm believer that a strong geopolitical relationship can be born out of a strong economic relationship, which often begins with trade."

The 72-year-old Baucus said he also wants to encourage the Chinese government's leadership to act responsibly in resolving international disputes, respecting human rights and protecting the environment, including reducing greenhouse gases and tackling pervasive pollution problems in major cities. 

Specifically, he said he would urge his Chinese counterparts to press North Korea to abolish its nuclear program and to help them work on relations between the two nations.

He also said he is working on several other more specific initiatives that are still under development and will be discussed once he takes up residence in Beijing.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) urged Baucus to focus specifically on cybersecurity issues as well as improving intellectual property protections that has cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars.

Baucus called intellectual property protection "a huge problem" and said he is committed to improving that environment. 

He said he wants to stop government-sponsored intellectual property theft.

"I will work with Chinese counterparts to ensure meaningful actions are taken to curb this behavior so that it does not undermine the economic relationship that benefits both of our nations," he said. 

The hardest line of questioning came from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who warned Baucus he needs to face the reality that China wants to dominate the world and will risk global security in the process. 

"The role China is playing should be of great concern to all of us," McCain said. 

"They want to be No. 1 in the world," he said. 

"Unless you understand that, you will have trouble dealing with them … and you will have difficulty being an effective leader."

Baucus responded, "I don’t disagree with you."

He said he would address the tensions in the East China Sea and Beijing's air defense identification zone, which reaches out into areas claimed by Japan and South Korea. 

Baucus said he suggests taking caution amid the many delicate relationships in the Asia-Pacific, including the one between Japan and China. 

He said he aims to find peaceful solutions to high-level disputes.

Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the panel's ranking member, also urged Baucus to focus on security issues.

He pressed him to develop a specific U.S. policy toward China to help shape their future and build on economic opportunities, which, he argued, the Obama administration has failed to do. 

"I'm upbeat about you taking the position because you've shown independence," Corker said.

Baucus, who stressed his global outreach to improve trade and economic relations during his 36 years in Congress, would take the job, as tensions are on the rise between the United States and China. 

He also would likely leave trade and tax issues in the hands of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) as he heads to Beijing. 

Baucus recently introduced bipartisan trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation but probably wouldn't stay around Capitol Hill long enough to see fast-track authority move through his committee. 

The legislation faces an uphill battle with many House and Senate Democrats, as well as some Republicans, opposing the legislation. 

Baucus told the panel that getting the ambassador's job goes along with his 50-year fascination with China, which he picked up while traveling the world during college. 

He said the trip spurred him into public service.

He was elected to the House in 1974 and moved to the Senate in 1978, where he is third-longest serving senator. He was planning to retire from Congress this year. President Obama nominated him to the China post last month.