In May 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. to be the United States Ambassador to China. Confirmed by the Senate in July, Huntsman took office on August 11, 2009. The appointment was broadly seen as one of the President’s best. A former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Huntsman was well acquainted with China and highly equipped to address some key issues likely to be important during his service. His appointment promised to help strengthen the crucial Sino-American relationship.
Huntsman also represented a potentially formidable challenge to Obama in the 2012 election. In 2008, running for a second term, Huntsman won 78% of the gubernatorial vote in Utah, running more than 15 points ahead of the Republican Presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. Huntsman’s ability to appeal broadly across the electorate concerned some of Obama’s senior advisors. Pundits hailed the appointment as a smart move; the President burnished Huntsman’s foreign policy credentials but also appeared to neutralize a political rival.
As matters turned out, Huntsman remained in China only 20 months, resigning his post on April 30, 2011, with the possible intention to enter the presidential race in 2012. His ambassadorship is certain to be an issue if he does, both among certain Republicans who will decry his service in the Obama Administration, and among other voters who will be intrigued by his special understanding of China.
Huntsman was a very energetic ambassador. His knowledge of the language, coupled with substantial political skills, fueled his outreach within China. He actively promoted public diplomacy, finding ways to communicate directly with Chinese people. One of his leading initiatives was the creation of the U.S.-China Governors’ Forum, which was formalized during President Hu Jintao’s January 2011 state visit. As a former governor, Huntsman saw substantial value in enhancing communications between the leaders of U.S. states and Chinese provinces.
Tensions between the two countries erupted periodically during Huntsman’s tenure, particularly around U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. As the ambassador noted in a March 2010 address to Beijing’s Tsinghua University, such troubles were not unusual for China and the U.S.; nevertheless, he judged that over the thirty years of diplomatic relations, ties between the countries had matured to the point that such cycles could be weathered and fluctuations could be more readily avoided.
Focusing on solving problems such as economic recovery, nuclear non-proliferation, and clean energy, the ambassador told Tsinghua that China and the U.S. shared a responsibility to work together. Huntsman expressed great optimism for the future course of what he called the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
Near the end of his term, Huntsman openly pursued sensitive issues that other diplomats might choose to avoid addressing, at least publicly. In particular, he criticized China on human rights issues. In his farewell address on April 6, the ambassador mentioned specific cases, and enunciated American policy: “The United States will never stop supporting human rights, because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur.”
In the same speech, Huntsman set forth a crucial foundation for effective bilateral communications. China and the United States would not always agree, he acknowledged, but they must listen carefully to each other, grasp what is being expressed, and accord respect to contradictory outlooks: “I know China also has strongly held views on certain issues that differ from ours, and it would be a mistake for us not to listen to their opinions and to try to understand the Chinese perspective.”
To replace Huntsman as ambassador, President Obama has nominated his Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke. Secretary Locke has deep experience in government, not only in the Obama cabinet but also in previous service as governor of the State of Washington and as the Executive of King County (Seattle). His confirmation by the Senate seems assured.
Locke will bring to his job government experience that parallels Huntsman’s. Both are well acquainted with trade issues, both served in the Department of Commerce, and both led states with strong outreach across the Pacific. Locke’s experience as a governor should help him build effectively on Huntsman’s state-to-province initiatives. Both are unusually knowledgeable about China’s culture and society. This groundwork helped Huntsman connect well and easily with Chinese people and should provide a similar foundation for Locke.
The future ambassador is a third-generation Chinese-American, whose family roots can be traced to Guangdong Province. He was the first person of Chinese descent ever to serve as governor of an American state and he will be the first Chinese-American to serve as U.S. Ambassador in Beijing. His appointment, as with Huntsman’s, demonstrates the esteem in which the President holds the Chinese-American relationship. Locke’s prospects for an effective tenure as ambassador are bright.
Martin Gold is a Washington, DC attorney with long experience in senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and has authored several books on the United States Senate