By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who has taken a tough stance against some of China's trade practices, will be nominated by President Barack Obama to be the next ambassador to Beijing, Senate aides said.
The choice underscores the importance Washington attaches to building economic links with China, including resolving many of the trade issues that have strained ties, Chinese experts on Sino-U.S. relations said.
Baucus, who announced earlier this year his intention to retire from the Senate at the end of 2014, currently chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax and trade policy. He was first elected to the Senate in 1978.
Obama's choice of the 72-year-old Baucus must be confirmed by the Senate. The chamber is not expected to consider the nomination until early next year.
"Even though Baucus has frequently given China a hard time, the government is unlikely to view his previous performances with colored glasses and tag him as part of the anti-China faction, they aren't so naive," said Sun Zhe, the director of the Center for U.S.-China Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
"After all, he was familiar with the Chinese government and with the way it operates. This will be beneficial to his work on the economy and trade."
A Democratic official, who asked not to be identified, noted that Baucus led the successful U.S. effort in the 1990s to admit China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 and to begin normal bilateral trade relations with Beijing.
Baucus would succeed Gary Locke, whose 2-1/2 year term was marked by a dramatic diplomatic row over the fate of blind legal activist, Chen Guangcheng.
The nomination, which has not yet been announced by the White House, comes as relations between the United States and China are strained over territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
In July, Baucus and three other influential members of Congress wrote to Obama to urge him to press China to halt the theft of intellectual property and to curb practices that discriminate against U.S. companies.
In June, he was among a group of senators who raised concerns about a plan by Chinese meat company Shuanghui International to buy U.S. pork firm Smithfield Foods Inc, citing national security and food safety interests.
Despite his stance on trade issues, Baucus would help drive the next phase of economic cooperation between the two nations, said Ruan Zongze, a former Chinese diplomat in the United States and a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.
"He has ... had many opportunities to interact with China and likely understands China quite a bit, so this is not a surprising choice, neither is it an accidental one," Ruan said.
Should the Senate confirm Baucus's appointment, one of his tests may be managing security issues, said Sun.
A U.S. guided missile cruiser, the USS Cowpens, and a Chinese warship operating near China's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, narrowly avoided collision early this month in the South China Sea.
The near-miss followed China's recent announcement of an air defense zone covering disputed islands in the East China Sea, further to the north, which upset Washington as well as its allies Japan and South Korea.
Another test could be Beijing's complaints about a U.S. strategic policy shift known as the "pivot" to Asia. China views this as an attempt to constrain its growing military and political power in the region.
A senior Senate aide said that under Montana law, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock will appoint a replacement for Baucus if he becomes ambassador to China.
Democrats currently hold 53 Senate seats and two independents regularly vote with them. There are 45 Republicans in the Senate and if Bullock appoints a Democratic replacement, it would not change the balance of power in the chamber.
Spokesmen for Bullock, who is expected to appoint a Democrat, were not available for comment.
Details were also not yet available on whether the replacement would serve through 2014. Baucus' Senate seat was already up for election in November 2014.
Whoever is picked by Bullock would have an advantage going into next year's election, assuming that person wanted to seek a full term in the Senate. Republicans have set their sights on the Montana seat in their drive to win majority control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing.; Editing by G Crosse, Leslie Adler, Dan Grebler and Dean Yates)