Updated: 12/21/2013 00:45 | By Agence France-Presse

Obama nominates Democratic senator Baucus as China envoy

US President Barack Obama said Friday he would nominate Democratic Senator Max Baucus as his new ambassador to China, at a time of spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Obama nominates Democratic senator Baucus as China envoy

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus speaks during a hearing on health insurance exchanges on November 6, 2013 in the Dirksen Senate Office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Baucus, 72, who has served Montana in the Senate since 1978, has long been a key figure in building the Sino-US trading relationship and is known for holding Beijing to account to international economic and commercial regulations.

"For more than two decades, Max Baucus has worked to deepen the relationship between the United States and China," Obama said in a statement.

"The economic agreements he helped forge have created millions of American jobs and added billions of dollars to our economy, and he’s perfectly suited to build on that progress in his new role."

The appointment of Baucus has more than a taint of domestic politics. 

Baucus has been a critic of the implementation of Obama's health care law, branding it a potential "train wreck" earlier this year.

Baucus had already announced his intent to retire, but his departure a year before mid-term elections will allow Montana's Democratic governor to appoint a successor -- potentially boosting the new senator's stature and fundraising clout before November's polls.

In turn, that could enhance the chances of Obama's Democrats holding on to control of the Senate.

Baucus is also close to Jim Messina, the campaign manager who helped the president win re-election last year.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that "no matter who assumes the position of US ambassador to China, we all hope that he or she can play a positive role in promoting China-US exchanges, mutual trust and cooperation."

The appointment was first reported earlier this week by the Politico news organization.

Before succeeding current US ambassador to China Gary Locke, Baucus will have to be confirmed by his colleagues in the Senate.

Baucus said in a statement that he was humbled by the nomination 

"The US-China relationship is one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships," he said.

"If confirmed, my goal will be to further strengthen diplomatic and economic ties between our two nations."

He also said he was following in the footsteps of his mentor Mike Mansfield, a long-serving Montana senator who headed to Asia late in life to become ambassador to Japan, a post he held throughout the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations.

Baucus will walk into a period of rising tensions between the United States and China, a knock-on effect from territorial clashes between Beijing and key powers in East Asia.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China of acting in an "irresponsible" way in a stand-off with a US naval ship this month in the South China Sea.

US officials have said that the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, had to take evasive action to avoid a collision with a Chinese vessel that had come dangerously close in the December 5 incident.

The incident underlined rising tensions after Beijing last month declared an expanded air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, which Washington and its Asian allies have refused to recognize.

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