WASHINGTON — President Obama's choice to become U.S. ambassador to China embraced several criticisms of that country Tuesday, agreeing that China wants to dominate Asia and is a regular violator of human rights.
Speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing, Sen. Max Baucus said he wants to help the U.S. build a more equitable economic relationship with China while encouraging the Asian giant to act responsibly as it emerges as a global power.
"I have become a firm believer that a strong geopolitical relationship can be born out of a strong economic relationship, which often begins with trade," said Baucus, a six-term Democrat from Montana.
But under questioning from fellow senators, Baucus acknowledged that the U.S. has a complicated relationship with China, one that extends beyond economic issues.
Senators were especially concerned that China declared an air defense zone over the East China Sea in November. The U.S., Japan and other countries have denounced the zone and said they would ignore China's demands that their military aircraft announce flight plans, identify themselves and follow Chinese instructions.
At Tuesday's hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said China's actions are "part of a pattern of their ambition to dominate that part of the world."
"The role that China is playing in Asia today should be of great concern to all of us," McCain said as he questioned Baucus. Later, McCain said of Chinese leaders: "They are continuous human rights abusers on a daily basis."
When it came time for Baucus to respond, he said, "I don't disagree with you."
"Your point I think is basically accurate," Baucus added. "But the overarching goal for us as a country is to engage China with eyes wide open, to try to find common ground."
After the hearing, Baucus was asked about his exchange with McCain.
"He made a very important statement," Baucus said of McCain. "I try not to get too involved in motives. I'd rather focus more on their actions and try to find common ground as best I can and find solutions that are grounded in reality."
Obama nominated Baucus to become U.S. ambassador to China last year. Both Republican and Democratic senators said they expect Baucus to sail to full confirmation by the Senate.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tentatively scheduled a committee vote on Baucus' nomination for Feb. 4. "I am sure you will be confirmed," Menendez told Baucus at Tuesday's hearing.
The 72-year-old Baucus said last year he would not seek re-election to another Senate term this fall. If confirmed as ambassador to China, he would replace Gary Locke.
If Baucus resigns from the Senate to take the new post, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana will get to name a replacement to fill the seat until January 2015. Bullock has repeatedly declined to discuss whom he is considering. He said last week he would act quickly.
Bullock's lieutenant governor, John Walsh, is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for the Senate seat. Walsh has asked the governor to appoint him to the seat once it becomes available. That would give him visibility that could help him in a potential primary or the general election.
The outcome of the Montana election could play an important role in which political party controls the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate from Democrats.
Baucus is well-grounded in U.S. trade policy with China from serving as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has authority over trade issues. Through his work on the committee, Baucus said he has helped enact free trade agreements with 11 countries, including China's neighbor, South Korea.
But, Baucus acknowledged Tuesday, he is not an expert on other issues involving China.
China and the U.S. have vast economic ties. China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, owning $1.3 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds. The two countries are also big trading partners, though the U.S. trade deficit with China is the largest with any country.
Figures through November show the U.S. trade deficit with China was on track to set a new record in 2013, exceeding $300 billion for the second straight year.