President Barack Obama had obvious political reasons for appointing Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as the next U.S. ambassador to China. His diplomatic reasons, however, are harder to discern.
Obama’s move enables Montana’s Democratic governor to appoint a successor to Baucus, who was slated to retire when his current term expires. That will give a Democratic appointee the benefit of incumbency as national Dems go all-out to retain a vulnerable Senate seat in 2014.
Baucus, an agriculture and federal finance expert, is well-prepared for the task of promoting free trade in China, especially selling the beef and wheat that his Big Sky Country produces in abundance. Trouble is, Obama’s act of political expediency leaves the U.S. short on professional experience with Asian issues at a critical juncture in Pacific affairs.
In view of the high stakes — and with all due respect to Baucus, a six-term senator — the U.S. would be better served if a career diplomat were to represent its interests. China and Japan are clashing over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea. The U.S. is closely allied with Japan, pledged to defend Japan militarily and inclined to favor Japan in the dispute. That’s true even when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inflames his neighbors by visiting a shrine associated with his country’s militarist past, as he did on Thursday.
Yet China is … China — vitally important to U.S. prospects, and on the rise. China’s interests cannot be ignored or dismissed. Its claims must be handled with expert care. The wrong word from a U.S. ambassador could make a life-or-death difference.
Consider the Asian concept of “face,” which combines social standing, honor and influence. Causing someone to “save face” rather than “lose face” is crucial to a working relationship. The basic rules: Stay patient and calm, make small compromises rather than being inflexible. But it takes skill and experience to find a face-saving solution in a faceoff as perilous as the East China Sea dispute.
Times like this make us doubt the long-standing practice of using ambassadorships as rewards for loyal political service and peripatetic campaign fundraising.
One of the perks of being president is appointing friends, donors and political allies to prestigious posts that are heavy on ceremony, pomp and swanky receptions, but light on substance. If Baucus were sent to Sweden, Australia, Bermuda or Luxembourg, we wouldn’t worry.
After three decades of Chinese economic expansion, though, Washington’s envoy to Beijing has become one of this nation’s most high-profile postings. For all of Baucus’ experience in Washington, he is no expert diplomat. Neither is Caroline Kennedy, another political ally whom Obama tapped as ambassador to Japan earlier this year.
Contrast those amateurish picks with Obama’s posting two years ago of the far more qualified Michael McFaul as ambassador to Russia. He’s a leading academic and policy expert on the region who also speaks Russian. McFaul has had his hands full, especially when former intelligence operative Edward Snowden fled to Russia after leaking U.S. secrets. America needs the most highly qualified diplomats possible in global hot spots, and McFaul fits that bill: Before this gig he worked for the National Security Council as special assistant to the president and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs.
The China posting, too, soon could be a very hot spot. We don’t expect China to start a shooting war with Japan. The more plausible danger is that as Japan and China step up their military sea patrols, the risk increases of miscalculations and accidents that could lead to a crisis.
Washington’s leading diplomats need to press both nations to establish procedures to head off such military mishaps, encourage both sides to accommodate their differing political interests, and remind them that if either pushes the other too far, both will be the losers.
Sounds like a job for someone who knows his or her way around Asia.