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Don’t let Beijing push us around, warns ‘frustrated’ former ambassador to China

BEIJING — The United States needs to stop getting pushed around by China and work out a long-term strategy to deal with the country’s rise, former U.S. ambassador Max Baucus said this week.

In an interview more than a month after leaving Beijing, Baucus expressed frustration with the Obama administration’s lack of strategic vision and its weakness when it came to China, but also accused President Trump of blundering around without even a basic understanding of the country.

China, Baucus said, has a long-term strategic vision to build up its economic might and global influence. The United States, by contrast, often appears distracted by problems in the Middle East.

“The Washington foreign policy establishment tends to put China on another shelf, to deal with it later,” he said. “We’re much too ad hoc, we don’t seem to have a long-term strategy, and that’s very much to our disadvantage.”

Baucus spoke by Skype from his home in Montana on Thursday, looking out over a beautiful valley framed by snowy mountains, where he sits and watches the storms roll in.

Being ambassador to China, he said, was “the best job I ever had,” even if his tenure there was abruptly ended by Trump’s election victory.

Baucus, who also spent more than three decades as a Senate Democrat, said he worked hard to prevent the two nations falling into the so-called Thucydides Trap, a theory that an established power feels threatened by a rising power, leading to a rivalry that often descends into war.

But making the relationship work takes serious thought in Washington, he said, something that did not always happen during his time in the job.

“It was very frustrating,” he said. “The White House would make a decision and we’d roll our eyeballs, and say: ‘This isn’t going to work, partly because we’re backing off, we’re being weak. What’s the strategy going forward?’”

Among his complaints: that the Obama administration had not done enough to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership ratified by Congress, even though U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman had worked very hard on 12-nation Asia-Pacific trade pact.

“The administration didn’t have the same zeal, the single-minded, mongoose-tenacity to get the thing passed that Mike Froman and several others in the bus had,” he said. “The president didn’t get involved nearly as much as I thought he could and should.”

The United States, he said, did stand up to China over accusations that state-sponsored cyber-spies were stealing U.S. trade secrets, but was not firm enough when combating Chinese protectionism – the lack of access to its markets and the growing problems faced by American companies there.

“China has a long-term strategy to build up its own champion industries, for its own benefit and to the detriment of other countries,” he said. “The United States should stand up a lot more with respect to China’s economic wall, let alone the Internet wall.”

Baucus said he saw signs the new administration was backing away from some of its more controversial threats – such as declaring China a currency manipulator – in favor of more targeted measures against dumping by state-subsidized companies. “I hope that’s where they go, and I tend to think that’s the direction,” he said.

Even before leaving Beijing, though, he was shocked to see Trump speak by telephone to Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen and publicly question U.S. adherence to the one-China policy.

That, he said, had been “a major blunder, a huge mistake,” by Trump, who was eventually forced to back down in a subsequent phone call with China’s President Xi Jinping.

“It’s typical Trump, ‘The Art of the Deal,’ hit your opponent first to get them off balance, but he has forgotten diplomacy is a lot more complicated than that, he’s forgotten Taiwan and one-China is non-negotiable,” he said. “You don’t understand China, you don’t understand Taiwan, you’ve not even graduated from high school yet.”

Baucus also warned of the dangers of the United States becoming a protectionist “island” under Trump, both economically and in terms of immigration, a direction that would only cede global space and influence to China.

He was not entirely negative about the new administration: Baucus expressed concern about a Washington Post story saying the State Department was being sidelined, but also praised incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“When you sit down and talk to him, you’ll listen, you don’t blow him off,” he said. “He knows what he’s talking about, he projects confidence and substance, if not gravitas.”

Baucus’ basic advice for the new administration: Start by formulating a “thoughtful, considered” strategy” towards China that includes both engagement and a determination not to be “pushed around.”

“One-China is not negotiable to China, Tibet is not negotiable to China, but we have to ask ourselves: ‘What are our bottom lines?’” he said. “Where can we be pushed no further?”

Whether it is in economics, the South China Sea or cybersecurity, the United States has to decide where the red lines lie, Baucus said, and be prepared to take firm action if those lines are crossed — action that should be measured in “deeds more than words.”

“There’s no question they’re going to test us,” he said. “It’s an authoritarian government, and they’re going to keep pushing.”