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Baucus: America and China need to get along – for the sake of the world

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Baucus: America and China need to get along – for the sake of the world

Apr 01, 2024 | 6:00 pm ET
By Darrell Ehrlick
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Baucus: America and China need to get along – for the sake of the world
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Max Baucus, former U.S. Senator from Montana and former Ambassador to China, speaks to the Billings Rotary Club on April 1, 2024

China isn’t going anywhere. And neither is the United States.

That may not stop either country from believing it can get the upper hand on the world stage, but for Max Baucus, former ambassador to China and United States Senator from Montana, the “Chinese question” is often framed incorrectly.

That’s what he told a Billings Rotary club on Monday, speaking about politics and the international stage. He said that because both are the dominant world powers — the United States, as the leader of the developed superpowers, and China, as the leader of the developing countries — more emphasis should be placed on figuring out how to cooperate since both are likely to be leaders for the foreseeable future.

During the speech in which he reflected on his time as ambassador to China for the last three years of President Barack Obama’s second term, Baucus spoke about what has changed and how to navigate the often tense and confusing relationship between the two countries.

He said much of America’s troubles when it comes to China is a lack of understanding about the nation. He also said that as America tries to export democracy as a form of government, that approach simply won’t work with China, which itself is trying to export its brand of communism. Instead, both must realize that their economic fortunes are tied together, and use that shared interest to create policies that help strengthen both.

“How well our kids and grandkids will get along will depend on how well we get this partnership right,” Baucus said.

He said he and his wife travel to China at least five times a year and maintain a connection of friends there.

“When I was there, we felt because of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, that if we kept engaging with them on that … that pretty soon, they’d be more like us and understand who we are,” Baucus said. “That was an invalid assumption.

“They, at least, do not want to be us. And we do not want to be more like them.”

He said that toward the end of his tenure, which ended in 2016, Baucus sensed the regime of Xi Jinping was tightening its grip on power.

“You could just feel the repression starting,” Baucus said. “The question is, why? And that’s because President Xi wants to be the leader to put China as a co-equal to the United States.”

Baucus said that some of America’s struggle to comprehend China comes from not understanding its history, dating back several thousands of years. The last two to three centuries have been called by Chinese historians and leaders the “centuries of humiliation,” in which China saw its dominance shrink and world powers like Great Britain eclipsing it.

“Now, they see it as coming back,” Baucus said. “China is coming back, and in some respects, with a vengeance.”

He said because of the central Communist Party, once China decides to do something, there’s no red tape or political debate, which can slow things in a democracy.

He said nowhere is that more evident in China’s power and manufacturing. While China is often touted for its massive construction projects and reliance on older technology, like coal-fired power plants, it’s also a leader in green energy and manufacturing. For example, China builds two-thirds of the world’s batteries, and 80% of the world’s solar generating happens in China.

“They know they have to get off coal, and they’re doing it quickly,” Baucus said.

He said the Chinese are also exporting technology and goods to an entire world. While America and other European countries are concerned about the Chinese technology either spying or intellectual property being stolen, China is rapidly exporting and building other developing countries, especially in Africa and South America.

“They can scale almost anything twice as fast,” he said. “They know how to do things fast. There’s not a lot of red tape or Congress or Senate members asking, ‘Well, what are you going to do for my state?’”

Moreover, Baucus said that the Chinese prioritize and subsidize emerging business and innovation, and that America needs to invest more in its innovation.

“Americans have to be more open-minded about China, because it’s not going anywhere. And we’re not going anywhere,” Baucus said.

He compared the relationship to a planned marriage.

“This isn’t a marriage based on love. There’s no divorce because we’re not getting off the planet. It all depends on the goodwill of both parties,” Baucus said.

And while he conceded that China is good at inserting — some may even say “meddling” — in other countries’ business, Baucus said China has less of a history of military aggression, which means that the battlefront will be economic.

“The U.S. has to stand up constructively to China. Because in China, there’s a little bit of a bully, and if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” Baucus said.

On Taiwan

Baucus said America’s current stance on Taiwan is both conflicted and ambiguous. That’s by design. While the official position is that reunification between mainland China and Taiwan is necessary, he said that America has supported that only if Taiwan could keep its democratic-oriented self-governance.

“We want reunification, but not by force,” Baucus said.

Spies and trade

Baucus addressed the TikTok controversy briefly, saying that neither country wants to stop doing business with the other.

“They steal from us, sure. But we steal. Countries steal each other,” Baucus said. “And while we should be worried about intellectual property, (intellectual property) is not as much of a threat as other things.”

Baucus said that other economic issues like a denial of access to some markets, tariffs and export controls on technology are more problematic for Chinese-American business relations than social media platforms, like TikTok.

Part of the challenge in the relationship is with the unstable or, at least uncertain, political climate in America. While the Communist Party announces plans, often it is uncertain how America’s quick political cycles, sometimes as short as two years between Congressional elections, will affect plans for the future.

“The Chinese are anxious,” Baucus said. “They want to know what the policies will be, and who are we going to put in place (as political leaders). We don’t tend to be as strong or strategic as we need to be. We have no long-term policy.”

Fentanyl

Several questions from the audience focused on fentanyl, the dangerous, powerful and addictive opioid that is often laced in other illicit drugs. Many of the “precursor” chemicals used to make the drugs come from China and head to countries like Mexico, where the illegal drugs are made.

Baucus recognized China’s role in the precursor materials for several drugs, including fentanyl and methamphetamine. He said the challenge is that China supplies the precursor chemicals to companies looking to legitimately manufacture opioids, as well as those that produce the drugs on the black market.

“They talk a good game about being tough,” Baucus said. “But as you all know, there’s a difference between word and deeds.”

Finally, Baucus said that as America becomes more isolationist, including wanting to be self-sufficient in all areas, he said there’s a danger that as the United States retreats, China will take its place.

“We have to be present. We have to be there in the region. And we have to be there for our business interests,” Baucus said.