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Three Takeaways From Baucus' Selection as Ambassador to China

With China increasingly demanding to be seen as an equal to the United States, the White House has selected the next steward of its most important, most complicated bilateral relationship. According to media reports, Max Baucus, the influential Democratic senator from Montana, is set to become the next U.S. ambassador to China.

While the implications of Baucus' selection are still unclear, here are three potential consequences of a Baucus ambassadorship:

1. It could enable the White House to take more control of the U.S.-China relationship:

In his new role as ambassador, Baucus will replace former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who will step down in early 2014 and who was preceded by former Utah Governor and presidential candidate John Huntsman. A respected Democratic voice, Baucus is not necessarily a lower profile pick than his predecessors, and he has already met with Chinese President Xi Jinping several times. Where he does differ, especially from Huntsman, is his near total lack of experience in security issues. "It's an interesting [pick] in the sense that security competition with China is heating up and he doesn't have much of a record" on security issues, said Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. While Baucus will certainly get up to speed, he's probably less likely than his predecessors to interfere with the White House and the Pentagon on military or political issues.

2. It could improve Beijing's relationship with Congress:

Chinese leaders have always been more comfortable dealing with U.S. presidents  -- who have a job that's roughly analogous to their own -- than with members of Congress. "They don't really know what to make of Congress, because it's this cacophony of people with many of them influential on different things," said Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist with Silvercrest Asset Management, who formerly taught economics at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Baucus, who's been in the Senate for 35 years, could help smooth over concerns in Congress about Chinese investment in the United States and unfair trade practices against U.S. companies in China. "Having someone who understands that side of the U.S. government and is influential and has those connections," is probably a good thing for the economic side of the relationship, Chovanec said.

3. It's an uncontroversial and unsexy choice for China:

Trade is always an easier bilateral issue for Beijing to deal with than military and security matters or questions of human rights. An October 2010 press release from his Senate office titled "Baucus Presses Top Chinese Officials to Address Trade Concerns, Open Market to Montana Beef" was likely not an issue of concern for Chinese officials. Baucus is a soft-spoken Senate dealmaker who was instrumental in ushering President Obama's signature healthcare overhaul through Congress. An introvert rather than a show man, he is less likely to anger Beijing by building a personal relationship with the Chinese people -- which his predecessors made a point of doing. Photos of Locke flying to Beijing coach class, carrying his own luggage, and waiting in line at a Starbucks went viral in China, because of the contrast they highlighted with corrupt Chinese officials. Huntsman famously rode his motorcycle through the streets of Shanghai and would occasionally ride a bicycle to meetings at the Chinese foreign ministry. Baucus will probably keep a lower profile. 

The news Wednesday night hit China's Internet as most of the country was waking up -- it's 13 hours ahead -- and Chinese news sites are so far just reporting the story without offering any additional commentary. The small number of Chinese netizens who have commented on the appointment have focused largely on Baucus' age. In China, the unofficial retirement age for top politicians is 70, and none of the members of China's Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member body that rules the country, is over the age of 68.

"How has he not retired at 72?" wondered one user of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. "Why don't they let him rest?" asked another Weibo user. "What will they do if he keels over?"

 

With reporting by Liz Carter.  

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Sochi Watch: To Attend or not to Attend, That Is the Question

In August, British comedian Stephen Fry fired off an impassioned letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, urging him to call for an "absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014."

Cameron thanked Fry for his concern and offered the following response: "I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics." With outrage over discriminatory Russian laws against its LGBT minority growing, it seems that world leaders and athletes are embroiled in a similar debate: to attend, or not to attend.

Politicians the world over aren't about to band together to openly boycott Sochi for any one reason (there are many), but with the start of the games on Feb. 7 fast approaching, the roll out for the Olympics is suffering something akin to death by a thousand cuts. World leaders are taking shots at Russia left and right, and the games are now threatening to turn into a PR nightmare for President Vladimir Putin.

This morning, the White House dropped a matter-of-fact statement listing the names of the U.S. delegation to the controversial Winter Olympics Games in Sochi -- a list that conspicuously didn't include President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, or Jill Biden. While Obama hasn't headed the delegation for any Olympic Games during his presidency, his delegations have certainly been star-studded. For the 2012 Summer Olympics, Michelle Obama went as the U.S. emissary; for the 2010 Winter Games, Biden and his wife jointly headed the delegation. President George W. Bush led delegation in 2008, along with the first lady; for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Laura Bush made the trek alone. In a clear break with tradition, the Sochi delegation will be led by former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, now the president of the University of California.

The White House didn't elaborate on the decision -- mentioning only that the delegation represents "the diversity that is the United States" and that the president would be too busy to attend -- but it doesn't take a leap of logic to realize that the delegation something of a shot across the Russian bow in response to a recent crackdown on its gay community. The presidential delegation will include two prominent gay athletes: Billie Jean King -- the tennis icon with 12 Grand Slam titles to her name -- and hockey player Caitlin Cahow.

In June, Putin signed a law prohibiting "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," and since then, the country has experienced an outpouring of homophobia. Gay rights protests have been subjected to violence -- at the hands of both thugs and the police. Meanwhile, Russia's controversial "foreign agents" law has been used to target pro-LGBT rights organizations in Russia. Last month, Russian state television broadcast an ugly piece of anti-gay propaganda -- all while featuring the Olympic rings.

While many have called on the United States to boycott the Olympics as a result, President Obama seems content to let his delegation -- and his Olympians -- do the talking for him. "One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing here," he said in August.

The United States isn't alone in poking Moscow in the eye over the gay-rights laws. Canada decided to send Vancouver's openly gay city councilor, Tim Stevenson, to advocate that the Russian organizers include a "Pride House," as Vancouver did in 2010. Danish parliamentary leader Marianne Jelved said she won't boycott the games, that she "believe[s] in engaging in a critical dialogue," and that she intends to bring up the issue of gay rights if she meets a Russian minister. While claiming it has nothing to do with gay rights, the German national team will be wearing a "stylish" rainbow uniform.

Still, Sochi will be the first time in 20 years that the United States isn't represented at the Olympics by a president, vice president, one of their spouses, or a cabinet-level official, but American officials aren't the only ones who are skipping the games this year. Vice President of the European Commission Vivane Reding also isn't attending, she says, as long as "minorities are treated the way they are under the current Russian legislation." Earlier this month, German President Joachim Gauck and French President Francois Hollande announced that they would not be attending, though they didn't explain why. No other top French officials are slated to attend either. Officials from other countries, like Poland and Georgia, are boycotting for different reasons.

While it's looking like there will be a distinct lack of world leaders in Sochi, there will be no shortage of controversy.

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