Baucus says he's a 'realist' on China

Sen. Max BaucusMax BaucusWyden unveils business tax proposal College endowments under scrutiny The chaotic fight for ObamaCare MORE (D-Mont.) promised at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday his eyes would be "wide open" in engaging with China as U.S. ambassador.

Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, acknowledged China as a rival, and growing economic and military power that the U.S. will need to contend with.

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Under questioning from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Baucus said he appreciated the fact that China intends to be the dominant force in Asia — something that creates a challenge for the United States.

“The Chinese leadership has a sense of history that they believe that the last 200 years was an aberration and that China has to be the leader — and the dominant force — in Asia,” McCain said during one of the more animated exchanges of the hearing. “And you have to appreciate that if you're going to deal with them.”

Baucus agreed.

“The overarching goal here is for us, as a country, to engage China with eyes wide open,” Baucus said. “I'm a realist. Believe me.”

Baucus, who announced his retirement from the Senate before President Obama nominated him as the U.S. envoy to Beijing, spent much of his time espousing the need for more trade and U.S. investment in China in order to bring the world's two largest economies closer together.

But he vowed to fight for U.S. interests, when they clash with China's.

Baucus concurred with McCain that the U.S. should beef up its security alliances with Japan and other countries amid territorial tensions in the East and South China seas. He said the Obama administration's decision to fly two B-52s over the Senkaku islands in defiance of China's new air-defense zone sent a “very important message” to Beijing.

He agreed with McCain's recommendation to seek advice from former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, both of whom have warned about the risks associated with China's rise.

“It's important for us to maintain our alliances and firm them up,” Baucus said. “We stand tall to protect our rights and maintain our friendships and alliances, and keep our naval fleet strong so that we can protect our interests.”

Overall the hearing was collegial, and Baucus's colleagues are expected to easily confirm him.

"Clearly one of the biggest challenges and biggest opportunities before U.S. foreign policy today is getting the relationship between the United States and China, in the context of our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, right," panel Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in his opening statement. "And I can think of few individuals more able and qualified, at this important moment in history, than our friend and colleague, the Senator from Montana to help provide advice and guidance to the President and to Congress about how to get that relationship right."

The panel is expected to vote on Baucus's nomination next Tuesday.

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