A Walk On The Great Wall
Last week, Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was confirmed by the Senate as the next US ambassador to China. Replacing Gary Locke, he steps into a leading role in shaping the US-China relationship. He is well qualified for his new position and there is a lot in Senator Baucus for the business community to like. He is expected to be especially strong on economic, trade and finance issues and the Chinese will respect his status in DC along with his ability to reach and potentially influence American policy makers. Most recently Baucus was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and he has frequently worked with Republicans to develop and pass key legislation during his 35-year career in the Senate.
As he moves into the official US residence in Beijing Baucus is not a completely unknown quantity to the business community or others there. He has visited China at least eight times and is reported to have closely followed events involving China for many years. Back in 2001, Baucus championed China’s inclusion in the World Trade Organization. Though highly controversial at the time, China’s assent into the WTO stands as a seminal event in China’s economic development and opening to the west.
However, stepping back to look at US interests across the Asia Pacific region, some observers would like to see stronger diplomatic credentials in the new US emissaries in China and Japan. The primary concern is North Korea, although there are others. Currently there is complete uncertainty over whether the recent execution of Kim Jung Un’s uncle strengthened Kim or is a sign of his weakness and an incomplete transition to power making the execution and ongoing purge of the uncle’s associates and loyalists an omen of a coming wider, high-stakes destabilization. Some observers believe that while China and Japan squabble over territory claims in the South China Sea precious time is being lost when diplomats and political leaders should be deepening relations and planning ahead. Recent attempts by a range of high-ranking US officials to establish a groundwork of talks between China, South Korea and Japan on the North Korea issue have all reportedly failed.
Later this month, the US and South Korea have scheduled joint military exercises. The same types of exercises that have led to significant escalations of tensions with the North in the past. Will North Korea retaliate with more nuclear tests, or by buzzing more missiles over Japan into the ocean, or with something even more dangerously inflammatory? While the North’s next move is, as always, a mystery, these events are clearly unfolding at a time when regional diplomacy is neither leading the way nor wining the day. For his part, Baucus has said he plans on taking an active role in helping resolve China’s maritime territorial disputes. Fulfilling that promise, if he can do it, couldn’t come a moment too soon.
Matthew Wisla recently returned from nine years in China helping American companies succeed in one of the world’s most demanding and challenging markets. He co-
founded the Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations Forum for the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing and later served as the organization’s Vice President of Communications. Previously he worked in the US and Beijing for the leading global communications consultancy Fleishman-Hillard. His expertise includes brand building and managing corporate reputations, as well as issues and crisis management and policy communications (www.matwisla.com).