Jon Huntsman sees the relationship between the United States and China as the most important relationship of the 21st century and one that Montana’s former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus can advance.
“Maybe Baucus can promote greater dialogue and interaction between the U.S. Congress and leaders in China,” said Huntsman, who was ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011 and had very little interaction with House and Senate lawmakers. “Taking interest in U.S.-China relations doesn’t pay political dividends. It’s easy to bash China and get an applause line.”
It’s much harder for U.S. lawmakers to recognize publicly that the United States and China have the world’s top two economies, and are the planet’s two largest energy consumers. The two countries also have some of the world’s best research facilities and will likely make some the biggest scientific discoveries this century.
Huntsman, a former Republican presidential candidate and Utah governor, likens the U.S.-China relationship to a Catholic or Mormon marriage — there’s no getting out of it.
Baucus understands the relationship, Huntsman said.
As Montana’s senator for 36 years, Baucus was the longest sitting member of the Senate Finance Committee, which handles trade issues. He was committee chairman from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2014. And, in that role Baucus played a hand in every free-trade agreement and in the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty, which sets the rules for U.S. investment in China and vice versa.
The Chinese press is already reporting that Baucus has “strong China experience” dealing with Chinese trade and has visited the nation at least eight times. In 2010, Baucus met with Xi Jinping, who is now president of China.
In the Senate, Baucus has played a role in U.S. policy toward China at least since the 1980s when Congress launched a raft of bills to turn back a $150 billion trade deficit. Baucus faulted President Ronald Reagan for lacking a trade policy. As a result, Baucus said “virtually every American industry is going down the drain.”
By 1989, Baucus was chairman on the Senate subcommittee on international trade and backing President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to investigate unfair trade practices concerning intellectual property rights in several countries, including China.
But Baucus also championed preserving most favored nation trade benefits for China, crafting a plan in the early 1990s that granted the status, while also requiring action on other fronts.
From that point on, Baucus repeatedly circled back during his tenure to address piracy of patented intellectual property by the Chinese.
Baucus also helped secure permanent normal trading relations for China, a necessary step before China could enter the World Trade Organization.
And the senator has been tireless about getting China to accept U.S. wheat and beef. U.S. beef still doesn’t pass through China’s front door. U.S. ranchers like Bill Donald, of Melville, a past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said American beef passes secretly through Vietnam to China, an arrangement that costs the U.S. beef industry billions of dollars in lost profits.
Huntsman said U.S. beef trade with China has been slowly evolving and could change.
“The beef market is close to opening in China,” Huntsman said. “Opening the beef market is a huge thing.”
China is also getting closer to raising the value of its currency, Huntsman said. If that happens, after years of allegations that the renminbi’s value was artificially low relative to the U.S. dollar, the flow of U.S. goods to China could dramatically improve.
The U.S. embassy in Beijing includes the offices of 40 different U.S. government agencies and departments, each with its own focus. The ambassador isn’t at the forefront of everything the agencies do, however he works closely with all of them.
One of the officers Baucus is likely to work closely with is Darci Vetter, nominated for chief agricultural negotiator with the rank of ambassador at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
President Barack Obama nominated Vetter the same day he nominated Baucus to be U.S. ambassador to China. Vetter was U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for farm and foreign agriculture services from 2010 through 2013. Before that, she was international trade adviser on the Democratic staff of the Senate finance committee, which Baucus chaired. The relationship will be important.
“The reality is that Max will have far more on his mind than just agriculture, but in fairness, quite often agriculture comes up,” said Vincent Smith, a Montana State University economist who specializes in international trade and agriculture policy analysis. “The flip side is he’s not stupid and it is not trivially important that Darci Vetter, who has trade experience on the finance committee, is now going to USTR.”
Huntsman said Baucus will be amazed at how well-schooled the people of China have become and how routinely those he will be dealing with speak English. There are 700 million Internet users in China and 100 million bloggers, Huntsman said. There are limits on Internet content, but there are many independent voices.
Huntsman, who lived in Taipei in the 1980s and then served as ambassador to Singapore in the 1990s before returning to the region in 2009 as ambassador to China said China’s transformation has been stunning.
“What is a shocker, and it will be to Sen. Baucus, is how sophisticated China has become in such a short period of time,” Huntsman said.