“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” – says mafia-don Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, The Godfather Part II. Wisdom that many argued President Barack Obama was applying when he made Jon Huntsman his ambassador to China in August of 2009. By elevating the moderate Republican, then governor of Utah, Obama took credit for reaching across party lines. But he also eliminated a potentially dangerous political rival. Or so he thought.
The plan may very well have backfired: Huntsman has handed in his resignation, and leaves his post at the end of April – prompting speculation that he may campaign for the White House in 2012.
On the surface at least, Obama isn’t worried. “I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary,” he joked with reporters during President Hu Jintao’s recent Washington visit.
But the pundits aren’t as sanguine. “White House officials are furious at what they consider an audacious betrayal” contends Politico.com, “but know that any public criticism would be likely to benefit Huntsman if he enters the primaries.”
Huntsman’s resignation makes him one of the shortest serving American ambassadors to China in history – and comes just weeks after a Newsweek article predicted he’d soon run for Obama’s job. Nor would it be the first time a former China envoy pulled off a successful presidential bid: George HW Bush previously held the post under Gerald Ford.
Huntsman may have had a short stint in China (just 21 months), but it seems to have been a popular one. That came as a surprise to some, given the disputes arising during his tenure, including the testy issue of US arms sales to Taiwan, as well as North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship (the Cheonan).
“It is due to his efforts that the Sino-US relations in the first year of President Obama’s term of office displayed a good upward trend,” proclaims the Guangzhou Daily. “Despite the great waves in Sino-US relations in the subsequent year Jon Huntsman’s efforts have been recognised by China.”
The idea of a Huntsman campaign has also been well received by some. “Huntsman’s experience in China will likely help him in any future presidential bid as he might be able to deal with relations with China in a more comprehensive and balanced way,” Chinese Academy of Social Sciences academic Ni Feng told the Global Times.
One story in particular helps explain how he sometimes got the better of his hosts. Summoned to receive an official rebuke, Huntsman chose to turn up for his diplomatic dressing down by bike (and on a vintage Shanghai Forever brand) rather than arrive by embassy car, according to the Wall Street Journal. It was a clever gesture, showing humility but also breaching protocol in a way that befuddled government officials, putting them on the backfoot.
Of course, Huntsman also has an adopted Chinese daughter (11 year old Gracie Mei), and is the first US ambassador to actually speak Chinese. He learned the language at 27, during a two-year stint as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan. He was also part of Ronald Reagan’s delegation to Beijing in 1984 – when he met then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and saw China in the early days of reform.
In the years that followed, Huntsman had several opportunities to visit China and negotiate with officials – mainly during Republican administrations. He was appointed ambassador to Singapore by George HW Bush in 1992, and served as deputy US Trade Representative under George W Bush between 2001 and 2003. In the interim he helped expand the China footprint of the multi-billion dollar chemicals business co-founded by his father, the Huntsman Corporation (which now has five manufacturing facilities in the country).
How will his time time as ambassador be judged back at home? Probably on his record in pushing two core US interests: the reduction of the trade imbalance and the promotion of yuan appreciation. And by those yardsticks he wasn’t very effective. The trade deficit rose from $268 billion at the end of 2008 to $273 billion last year. And the yuan has only appreciated around 4.1% since he arrived in Beijing.
Despite that, he’s managed to avoid a reputation as a pushover. “Huntsman is no panda-hugger,” former National Security Council advisor Michael Green told the Washington Post on his nomination. “He knows the country well, but he will be firm.” The leaked ‘Wikileaks cables’ appear to validate that prediction. In some of the dispatches Huntsman describes China’s foreign policy as one of “muscle-flexing, triumphalism and assertiveness” and argues that its investing rules “add to the overall sense that China plays unfairly in the global marketplace.” (Remember Coca-Cola’s failed 2009 bid for Huiyuan Juice?)
Those concerns were doubtless appreciated by the US multinationals trying to do business in the country. “Huntsman is the most capable and effective ambassador that Washington has dispatched to Beijing in many years,” opined James McGregor, former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. Promoting their cause may have helped to soften some of the ‘buy-China’ policies (for example, the repeal of a rule that 70% of wind turbines erected in the country had to be made from components manufactured domestically). So could he become the next US president?
It’s still unclear whether Huntsman plans to run in the coming election, in 2016, or even at all. Certainly, his foreign policy experience could turn into an advantage if he can persuade Republican voters to overlook his service to a Democratic administration.
Still, that presupposes Huntsman has enough of name recognition to make it to the Republican nomination (Sarah Palin, he isn’t). Or that the US electorate at large will be impressed by his China experience (not a certainty, either).
That’s a little ironic, given that some Chinese commentators have said that this experience is a genuine asset. “This doesn’t only mean that there’s a pre-built bridge with the US,” warns the Southern Metropolis Daily, “but also that there’s a tough opponent who knows China well… Jon Huntsman is bound to seek more substantive benefits than his predecessors from China and his understanding of China’s culture is a unique weapon. Is China prepared to deal with such an adversary?”
Keeping Track: What was it that we said last month about soon-to-depart US Ambassador Jon Huntsman, and his fine reputation with the Chinese? Just a couple of weeks on from our rather glowing farewell review, including approving comment from the local media, Huntsman has been in much more combative form, condemning the “harassment and intimidation” of reporters attempting to cover a series of proposed protests in Chinese cities in recent days.
His presence close to a scuffle outside a McDonald’s in Beijing the week before last has also been raising Chinese ire, particularly online, although his press office claims it was coincidental. Filmed on the fringes of the fracas, clad in dark glasses and a leather bomber jacket replete with Stars-and-Stripes logo, he was also recognised by passersby. One asked him if he “wanted chaos” for the Chinese.
If he meant to be a surreptitious onlooker, Huntsman failed miserably. That has led to speculation (on US blogs, mostly) that his presence at the rally may have been designed to raise his profile at home in advance of his anticipated presidential run. A case of political ambition trumping diplomatic caution, perhaps? (March 4, 2011)
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