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Ambassador To China Shares Lessons Learned With The Next Administration

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Obama's ambassadors - the political appointees, not career diplomats - they have until next Friday, Inauguration Day, to clear out of their embassies. This is one of the many ways President-elect Donald Trump is trying to mark a break with the outgoing administration. Among those coming home next week is Max Baucus, the U.S. ambassador to China since 2014, and before that, a longtime senator representing the state of Montana. Trump is nominating Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to succeed Baucus.

Ambassador Baucus joins us now on the line from Beijing. Thank you so much for being with us.

MAX BAUCUS: You bet, Rachel. Good hearing you.

MARTIN: In your dealings with Chinese officials since the election, how do they view Donald Trump's victory?

BAUCUS: They're a little uncertain. They find him unpredictable. Of course, many people find him unpredictable. They're kind of laying low, assessing what seems to make the most sense for China. My advice to them is to try to find ways to look for opportunities where they, the Chinese, can take some initiatives to show to the new administration that they very much want to work with and are - want to partner with the United States.

MARTIN: You've said the U.S. needs to stand up for itself in its relationship with China. And since his election, Trump has rattled China by speaking with the president of Taiwan and talking about raising tariffs on Chinese imports. Is that the kind of thing you had in mind when you said stand up in its relationship?

BAUCUS: No, no. I think basically that, although we have a quite good relationship with China, that the time has come for the United States to be a little bit more firm in some areas, especially economic. I think that the level playing field is so unlevel - it is tilted so much in favor of Chinese companies - that it's time for the United States to do a little bit more, see.

You know, you've got to stop denying our investors' investment in China, stop denying access to our companies trying to enter Chinese markets. And then if they don't, then we're going to have to look for appropriate, solid ways to show to China that, I'm sorry, we just have to do something because we can't keep going on like this.

MARTIN: When you say do something, what does that mean?

BAUCUS: It means finding some reciprocal action. But first, if they don't stop, that we have no choice but to take a specified, or if not specified, make it clear it's going to be a very large reciprocal actions that gets their attention. We've done this in the past and it works.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about some comments that Rex Tillerson made earlier this week during his confirmation hearing. He's, of course, Trump's pick to become the next secretary of state. He was talking about the South China Sea. Let's listen to that clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REX TILLERSON: We are going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island building stops and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed.

MARTIN: Our correspondent in Shanghai, Rob Schmitz, is reporting this morning that those comments aren't going over so well in the Chinese press, that media there is filled with threats of retaliation, even talk of war with the U.S. How are you reacting to those comments?

BAUCUS: My basic advice to the Chinese, with respect to the South China Sea is, hey, guys, cool it. We have said that to the Chinese in the past, and it has worked. They have stopped. I don't know that it's wise to publicly and loudly and with a large megaphone make some of those statements. I think it's much wiser privately, as we have done, to say to the Chinese, no more. And 'cause if there is any more, there will be definite consequences.

MARTIN: You've been a staunch supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal, the TPP. It appears Trump is walking away from that. That was part and parcel of the Obama administration's big pivot to Asia. What happens with that policy now?

BAUCUS: Failure to pass TPP sends a big signal. The United States is backing off, backing away. That will create a huge void here. Politics abhors a vacuum. China will start to fill that vacuum by putting together its own trade deals, its own agreements, putting pressure on other countries in the region, and it's just going to be a problem for all of us.

And I very much hope that the Trump administration reconsiders and finds a way - it doesnt have to be exactly the same TPP - but finds a way to get - go back to the table, show up to the Chinese, hey, if you want to join, we'll try to find a way where you can join, too. It's critical. Since I've been here as ambassador, nothing has passed my desk which is more critical than this, nothing comes close, for our strategic long-term interests.

MARTIN: U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus, thank you so much.

BAUCUS: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.