Senator Max Baucus of Montana is expected to replace Gary Locke as U.S. ambassador to China. Many have noted that the decision to nominate Baucus was influenced by the U.S. administration’s domestic political calculus and the senator’s past work on U.S.-China trade matters. But Baucus has another asset that should not be overlooked: thirty-five years of experience in the U.S. Congress. The senator is well-positioned to help bridge the gap of understanding and trust between Congress and China, which could lead to more effective U.S. and Chinese policymaking.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama have made it a priority to deepen their personal relationship and better understand each other’s foreign and domestic priorities. But Chinese officials still need a better understanding of how the U.S. government functions between the executive and legislative branches. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, needs a more sophisticated understanding of China and to pay greater attention to the country.

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center based at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Haenle served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama prior to joining Carnegie.
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Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are the closest public officials to the American people and can be important educators of their constituents on China and foreign policy issues. Yet, close familiarity with and consistent focus on China has been lacking on Capitol Hill primarily because U.S. representatives are elected to look after the interests of their local constituents, not necessarily for their foreign policy expertise. What’s more, internal and domestic matters have recently consumed the congressional agenda because of Washington’s political gridlock and high turnover in the House (new members do not usually focus on foreign policy).

The bipartisan U.S.-China Working Group is meant to address this gap in expertise about and dedicated interest in China. Formed in 2005 and led by Congressmen Rick Larsen and Charles Boustany, the group already does excellent work educating congressional members and staff about China. Yet, having a well-respected former congressman like Baucus at the helm of the U.S.-China relationship could, as former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Hunstman said recently, “reintroduce members of Congress to the most important relationship of the 21st century.”

True, the majority of engagement between Washington and Beijing will continue to come from the executive branch. But Baucus’s nomination and his potential to improve congressional savvy on China are important because Congress is set to play a key role in a number of critical issues concerning the U.S.-China relationship in the years ahead. To craft effective legislation that advances U.S. interests and policy, Congress will need good, accurate information about current developments in China and a deeper understanding of how history, geography, and culture form Chinese views and behavior.

Baucus, a six-term senator and chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, is well-equipped to educate and inform congressional members and staff about China. Using his network on Capitol Hill to bring awareness and attention to pressing China-related matters can help facilitate smarter and more effective decisions regarding U.S. policy toward the rising Asian power.

One issue that has moved to the fore is cybersecurity, especially in the aftermath of a February 2013 report from U.S. cybersecurity firm Mandiant. The report revealed that a unit of China’s People’s Liberation Army has stolen data from more than 100 American companies and government agencies since 2006. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced nine bills focused on cybersecurity in 2013. In the coming year, Congress is expected to debate new legislation that seeks to make critical updates to U.S. cybersecurity laws, including changes that begin information sharing about cyberthreats and better protect national security, commercial infrastructure, and consumers.

In debates in Beijing, Baucus can play an important role in drawing a clear distinction between traditional forms of espionage, which seek to uncover political and military secrets, and trade and commercial cyberattacks that threaten U.S. security and economic prosperity.

Congress will also decide this year whether to grant Obama trade promotion authority—leverage to negotiate trade agreements with the understanding that final agreements will be unamended and their implementation expedited. Without this authority, passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be seriously jeopardized. The TPP has been the critical trade and economic component of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia aimed at taking advantage of the region’s economic dynamism. The twelve countries currently participating in TPP negotiations account for nearly 40 percent of global GDP and one-third of world trade, and China has begun to express interest in joining the agreement. The TPP could boost U.S. exports, serve as a platform for economic integration in the Asia-Pacific, and drive economic growth and job creation across the United States and the region.

Nevertheless, Congress will vigorously debate the passage of trade promotion authority, and Baucus has a key part to play. He should highlight the importance of the TPP and other China-related security issues to members on Capitol Hill while deciphering the intentions and domestic considerations behind these legislative developments to Chinese interlocutors.

Another area in which Baucus can contribute to enhanced understanding and constructive cooperation between China and Capitol Hill is on outer-space-related issues. A 2011 U.S. appropriations law prevents the U.S. space agency, NASA, from funding activities that are conducted “bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company” or that provide for the “hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA.”

Past steps by Congress to prohibit U.S.-China space exchange because of national security concerns certainly have not slowed down China’s progress. Instead, these measures seem to have only made it more difficult for the United States to understand the operations of and progress made by the Chinese space program. At the same time, the efforts have prevented mutually beneficial cooperation on space research and exploration. For instance, NASA cited the 2011 law when it prohibited Chinese scientists from attending a November 2013 conference at the Ames Research Center in California. The step, which many saw as a misapplication of the law carried out for political reasons, strained bilateral relations but did not stop China from achieving a notable milestone in space exploration a month later, when it became the third country to complete a soft landing on the moon’s surface.

As ambassador, Baucus can draw attention to opportunities for cooperation on global issues on which Washington and Beijing have converging interests, such as space exploration.

In the past, congressional focus on China has been infrequent thanks to a shortage of interest in and knowledge about the country—most often China has drawn attention in times of tension rather than opportunity. But Washington can no longer afford this position because China’s rise has prompted Beijing to take a more proactive approach to regional and international diplomacy, and globalization is deepening U.S.-China interconnectedness and interdependence. Few global issues can be solved in the coming decades without U.S.-China cooperation.

Enhancing Washington and Beijing’s collaborative efforts as part of a new type of major country relations will require stronger understanding, engagement, and interaction between Capitol Hill and China. It will be vitally important for members of Congress to take a strong interest in foreign policy issues, especially those related to China, and for Beijing to better understand the role and interests of Congress.

Should Baucus use his experience on Capitol Hill to facilitate more constructive interaction between China and Congress, he could very well leave a lasting legacy on the U.S.-China relationship.