Chuck Johnson, current U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, and former U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus, discuss geopolitics in Asia at the Museum of the Rockies on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Over 100 hundred people attended the hour-long "fireside chat" that covered democracy, Taiwan and stability in the region. Credit: John Stember / MTFP

BOZEMAN — Two leading U.S. diplomats with expertise on Asia-Pacific geopolitical issues lined up on opposite sides of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last month to Taiwan, one contending the journey was “a colossal mistake” while the other shrugged it off as a tempest used by China to distract from its own domestic issues.

Max Baucus, former U.S. ambassador to China and senator of Montana, listens to current U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel on geopolitics in Asia at the Museum of the Rockies on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Credit: John Stember / MTFP

Former Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who served as ambassador to China from 2014 to 2017, and the current envoy to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, spoke about that and other issues Monday night as part of the Stockman Bank Speaker Series at the Museum of the Rockies.

The two Democrats engaged in a cordial and broad conversation on numerous topics during the hour-long discussion co-sponsored by Montana Free Press and the Max Baucus Institute. Their sharpest disagreement came over Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taipei in early August.

“Her visit and the visit of others and the actions of other members of this Congress and even the administration in my judgment are pushing us closer to the trip wire,” Baucus said. “It’s a very big mistake, and I feel we’re making a big mistake by going so close to potentially causing China to do something that we don’t want.”

Emanuel, a former congressman and two-term mayor of Chicago who was named by President Joe Biden as ambassador to Japan last year, said Pelosi’s visit came on the heels of a Senate delegation’s trip to Taiwan several weeks earlier, where no complaints were heard from Beijing.

“Her visit and the visit of others and the actions of other members of this Congress and even the administration in my judgment are pushing us closer to the trip wire.”

Max Baucus, former Montana senator and ambassador to China

He contended that Chinese leader Xi Jingping used Pelosi’s visit as a way to distract from a poor domestic economy, unemployment and the aftermath of its covid policies.

“We’re a permanent Pacific power; we’re not going anywhere and we’re going to be here with our friends,” Emanuel said. “Everything we do on economic terms, political terms, national security terms, military terms, has to reinforce that point.”

Baucus countered: “We can’t count China out. China’s going to be there. They’re determined, they’re strong. During my three years there I’m very impressed with them. They make a lot of mistakes, but they correct their mistakes.”

He added: “Chinese people believe Taiwan is theirs.”

Emanuel, who served as Barack Obama’s chief of staff during the president’s first term, took a different view of China. “I’m not belittling China, but I’m also not going to believe that my opponent is 10 feet tall. They have massive problems that can’t be ignored.”

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel explains some of the differences between Japan and China at the Museum of the Rockies on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Credit: John Stember / MTFP

The discussion, moderated by veteran statehouse reporter Chuck Johnson, also touched on the importance of Japan as an ally in the region, the state of democracy in the United States in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, and the importance to Montana of the political climate in the Asia Pacific.

Emanuel cited a recent poll done in Singapore that found Japan’s favorability among the public was at 75%, while the United States was at 56% and China was at 22%.

He noted that Japan played a key role in the United Nations vote last spring to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, saying it rallied neighboring countries to support the condemnation. 

“This is a different Japan,” Emanuel said. “It is the most important ally we have.”

Baucus added: “Japan stepped up, there’s no question.”

Both Baucus and Emanuel said they support efforts to require young people in the United States to perform some type of mandatory national service.

Baucus noted that Montana benefits in important ways from trade with Asian Pacific nations.

Emanuel said, “It’s relevant because you’re Americans,” of why Montanans should care about what happens in the region. “America’s standing in the world matters to you.” 

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Frank Eltman

Frank Eltman is a former Associated Press reporter and editor who retired in 2020 after a 31-year career. He was the AP’s Long Island correspondent from 2006 to 2018, where he was honored with induction into the Long Island Press Club Journalism Hall of Fame. He most recently was an editor at the AP’s West Regional Desk in Phoenix, where he worked on stories in 13 western states including Montana. He and his wife moved to Bozeman in 2021 to live closer to their daughter and future son-in-law.