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Ambassador Baucus bids farewell to China amid power transition

(L-R) US Ambassador to China Max Baucus, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People on January 27, 2016 in Beijing, China. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Max Baucus is scheduled to complete his tenure as US ambassador to China on January 20, as US President-elect Donald Trump will officially take the oath of office on the same day.

In a farewell video starting with a Chinese greeting "Da Jia Hao", the ambassador and his wife Melodee Hanes recalled what they experienced in China where they have made so many good friends.

"You know, there is much more that unites our two countries than divides us... Our relationship is one that is going to shape the 21st century. And I cannot wait to see what we can accomplish next. There is such potential," said Baucus.

In the farewell video, the 75-year-old diplomat mentioned his promise to Chinese President Xi Jinping of visiting each of China's provinces, which has made him a unique ambassador who was not confined to the embassy in the Chinese capital and who built relations between the two peoples through field trips.

"It meant so much to me. And guess what, in October, I did it. I have talked with students, with businesspeople, with government officials, and many others across the country. It all comes down to the people," said Baucus, whose fascination with China goes back to 50 years ago when he took a year off from his studies at Stanford University and hitchhiked around China and other countries.

During his tenure as US ambassador to China, Chinese people benefited from a streamlined visa process generally attributed to a 2014 agreement allowing the two countries to reciprocally increase the validity of short-term business and tourist visas to 10 years from one year and Baucus' efforts to replenish manpower to process piles of visa applications.

In September 2016, negotiations on the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) between China and the US made great progress because of the meeting between Chinese President Xi and his US counterpart Barack Obama during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, with the two governments exchanging new "negative list" offers.

Promoting investment between the two countries is one of the two overarching tasks for Baucus, who pledged to develop the US' economic ties with China in a way that can benefit American businesses and workers.

But the future of the BIT remains uncertain due to incoming president Donald Trump, who attacked China in aspects of trade, investment and military buildup during his campaign and after his electoral triumph.

The other important task for Baucus is to encourage China to deal with international disputes and protect the environment in a responsible way, as the Asian country emerges as a global power.

In the context of the US' pivot to Asia, the differences and confrontations between Chinese and American navies seem to have escalated in the South China Sea, as reflected in the strengthened deployment of American warships and military aircraft near the disputed islands in the waters and China's increasing assertiveness over the challenges from other claimants.

Anyway, there is one good thing for both countries. At the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China and the US agreed to ratify the Paris Climate Treaty in a joint effort that showcases one of the few areas of agreement in a bilateral relationship soured by South China Sea disputes.

"I am particularly inspired by our ability to work together to overcome some pretty big issues. Climate change, for example, I am so proud of our two countries to put that climate change agreement together," said Baucus in the farewell video.

On January 12, Baucus published a farewell article titled "Opening the next chapter in Sino-US relations" in the state-run People's Daily newspaper, in which he said that he was inspired by China's remarkable transformation and re-emergence on the global stage over his 35 years in the US Senate and especially his time as the US ambassador.

"China joined the US to help lead the world toward an ambitious agreement on climate change in Paris... China served as the host of the Six Party Talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and can play an equally important role in seeing those talks resumed," wrote Baucus, who sees these efforts as proof of China acting as a responsible country.

The article was also reposted on the US embassy in China's WeChat public account, where Baucus, who called himself a doglike user of the popular messaging app through which he frequently communicated with his Chinese counterpart Cui Tiankai, cultivated a base of Chinese fans.

Under a WeChat post attached with the farewell video, a platoon of fans left comments, sending their best regards to the ambassador and his wife. "Thanks for your friendly behavior in China," wrote a WeChat user. "Welcome back to China, and all the best wishes to you and your family," said another WeChat user.

The popularity brings to mind the stardom of his predecessor Gary Locke, who came into limelight largely due to his populist style and Chinese face.

"Gary Locke is more of a retail politician compared to Max Baucus. While Locke enjoys being out among people, Baucus is more of an insider, I think—someone who enjoys that nuts and bolts of everyday governing more than public appearances. Also, because of Locke's Chinese ancestry, he probably felt more at home in Chinese culture than did Baucus," Professor Bruce Larson of the Department of Political Science at Gettysburg College told the

Larson denied the view that Baucus, as an ambassador, would change the US Congress' negative attitude toward China. "Baucus has not improved the view of China in Congress because most members of Congress do not care what an ambassador thinks, even if, like Baucus, the ambassador was once in the Senate. Most members' views on China are generally informed by what voters and groups in their districts and states think," said Larson.

The professor also said that President Xi and the newly-appointed US Ambassador to China Terry Branstad has genuine friendship, which would be good to keeping the US-China economic relations strong, but he is uncertain about what will happen in the bilateral relations after Branstad assumes office. "On the other hand, Branstad often defended Trump's statements, even some of the extreme ones, during the campaign. To be honest, it is difficult to say what Branstad's tenure as ambassador will be like because Trump is so unpredictable right now."

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