KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Over the past week, U.S. and Chinese warships have held maneuvers in the South China Sea, and the Philippines, a U.S. ally, has repositioned itself closer to China. Washington's man in Beijing at this delicate time is the former Democratic Senator from Montana Max Baucus. He sat down yesterday to talk with our man in Beijing, NPR's Anthony Kuhn.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On a visit here last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte proclaimed that his country is separating from the U.S. and shelving its maritime disputes with China. Some commentators saw it as a setback to the U.S.'s strategic position in Asia. Ambassador Baucus though, sees a silver lining, at least in the short term.
MAX BAUCUS: Duterte and the Philippines, by making overtures to China, has actually in a strange way helped cool things off here because China is trying to figure out who is this guy, what's he all about?
KUHN: Washington and Tokyo appear just as perplexed. But in the long-term, Baucus says, the Philippines plays a minor role in the South China Sea dispute, which is mainly between the U.S. and China.
BAUCUS: My major advice to the Chinese for the last year is cool it, OK. Don't be too disruptive here. Don't do something nutty.
KUHN: Something like building on and fortifying Scarborough Shoal, a strategic sandbank claimed by the Philippines and China. He says the Chinese appear to have listened, for now. Baucus's advice to the U.S. government, meanwhile, is this.
BAUCUS: We've got to stand up for ourselves. That is, draw some lines, make it clear that after a while we're not going to get bullied or pushed around because I think there's some in China who are tempted to try to push the United States around. They want to bully us.
KUHN: Baucus says the U.S. also needs to take the lead in building rules and institutions in Asia. He cites the trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as an example.
BAUCUS: And if we don't pass it, then the alternative is China basically fill in the void.
KUHN: The TPP faces stiff opposition in Congress and from both presidential candidates. But Ambassador Baucus says Americans need to think more deeply and creatively about China if they want to avoid conflict with it.
BAUCUS: I really think it's extremely important for Americans to better understand China. And by better, I mean don't just read their lines. You've got to dig down to find out what's going on, and come over, see China.
KUHN: As of last week, Baucus became the first U.S. ambassador to China to visit all of its provinces, taking in the country's vast diversity.
BAUCUS: It's almost impossible to describe. It's a mosaic. It's a kaleidoscope.
KUHN: Baucus is most enthusiastic about China's people, who he describes as optimistic and pragmatic. But he says he has to prod Chinese officials a bit to get off their talking points, which he says can be as monotonous as a Senate filibuster.
BAUCUS: I'm kind of pushing the envelope a little bit here by being very candid and very direct, but in a respectful way. And I think it makes a difference.
KUHN: You seem to be having some success in getting them to actually go off script. Is that right?
BAUCUS: They do go off script, but they've memorized the script so much that they know what they're going to say anyway, but they do engage.
KUHN: Whether or not Baucus will stay on and continue to engage with China's government and people will be up to President Obama's successor. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.