Veteran U.S. senator Max Baucus vowed Tuesday to make human rights a top priority if he is confirmed as the new ambassador to China, saying he would also press Beijing to follow international rules on trade and maritime disputes.
Baucus, a 72-year-old Democrat from Montana, told a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination that he wants to help protect U.S. business interests in China while encouraging the Asian giant to act responsibly as a global power.
“Protection of human rights is probably the bedrock, fundamental goal,” Baucus said, promising that if confirmed he will urge China’s leaders to ensure freedoms “of all its citizens, including ethnic and religious minorities.”
“I will call on Chinese authorities to allow an independent civil society to play a role in resolving societal challenges, take steps to reduce tensions and promote long-term stability in Tibet and Xinjiang, and restart substantive talks with the Dalai Lama,” he said.
“I will work to convince China that open debate and the free flow of information is in its own interest.”
Baucus, a senator since 1972 and current chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, was nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama in December to replace Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American to hold the position.
Locke’s two-and-half-year service in Beijing was marked by a dramatic diplomatic row over the fate of Chinese blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest to seek refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Chen eventually secured a visa to travel to New York to study on a U.S.-brokered deal.
Baucus is expected to sail through confirmation by lawmakers, with Foreign Relations Committee senators raising little opposition to his nomination during Tuesday’s hearing.
Trade and security concerns
He would take over at a time of simmering tensions over territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea and as U.S. moves to refocus military and diplomatic resources on Asia have antagonized Beijing.
Baucus indicated a firm stance on freedom of navigation in the waters and said he would urge China to abide by international law and norms in resolving maritime disputes.
Baucus admitted that he was “no expert on China” but described how he has worked for years to integrate China into the global trade community, vowing to work to protect U.S. trade concerns by fighting cyber-espionage and protecting intellectual property.
"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," he said.
“China must be fully invested in the rules-based economic system,” he said.
The six-term senator, who is best known on the international stage for brokering free trade agreements, has made at least eight trips to China as senator, including one with a stop in Tibet.
Asked whether he would visit an underground Christian church as ambassador, Baucus said it was too early to say where he would visit, but stressed he was eager to be “out in the field” and not confined to the embassy.
“I do not want to be an ambassador who is parroting talking points. I want to be one who makes a difference,” he said.
The committee is likely to vote on his nomination on Feb. 4, after which his nomination may be sent for approval to the full Senate.