Sep 03

Jon Huntsman Challenges in China

Written by guest on Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 at 3:35 pm
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Jon Huntsman the current Ambassador to China has an interview with WSJ about the current challenges in China.


BEIJING — Relations between China and the U.S. are at a critical phase, with the next few months likely to test whether the two sides really have built strong and lasting ties, said the new U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman Jr.

In his first sit-down interview with Western media since arriving here last month, the 49-year-old former Republican governor of Utah spoke of his long ties to China, including his 10-year-old adopted Chinese daughter’s excitement at returning to her roots and how as a young man himself he had a brush with global diplomacy when he helped former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger set off on a secret mission to China.

Mr. Huntsman on Wednesday mostly mused about the array of serious challenges that the two countries have to deal with in the next few months, including climate change, the global economy and military ties.

“We’re putting the relationship to the test, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr. Huntsman said. “And I suspect we have more on our plate than ever before in our 30 years of a formal diplomatic relationship.”

On Wednesday, for example, the U.S. trade representative was due to make a recommendation to President Barack Obama on a request by U.S. tire manufacturers to limit Chinese-made tire imports. The two sides have to cooperate on addressing global economic woes, with China critical of the ballooning U.S. budget deficit and weak dollar. In addition, the two sides face sticky issues in dealing with North Korea and Iran, two countries that aspire to develop nuclear weapons.

The two sides are also engaged in difficult negotiations about climate change, with pressure building for a deal during President Obama’s planned trip to China in mid-November. Before setting out for China, Mr. Huntsman said, Mr. Obama told him to focus on a few big-picture issues: global economy, energy and climate change.

U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., says relations between the countries are at a critical point. Still, Huntsman expressed hope that despite inevitable disagreements, the two nations could work together.
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“China is in fact a stakeholder in all of these issues, and arguably wasn’t in years past,” Mr. Huntsman said. “If there’s one aspect of the relationship that’s unique and different from what it was before, it is the number of truly global issues that together we’re approaching and hoping to seek solutions on.”

Mr. Huntsman said there already are signs of progress. Ties between the two countries’ militaries are restarting after a year of frosty relations that was triggered by Washington’s agreeing to sell weapons to Taiwan, China’s rival. Also, a regular dialogue on human rights is due to restart this year after more than eight years of virtually no discussion.

The two countries’ more mature ties were reflected in talks Mr. Huntsman had with Chinese leader Hu Jintao, when the ambassador was received last week in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in downtown Beijing, seat of the central government’s power. “He was very forthright in saying we have to realize we’re not just going to always agree on all issues. I didn’t expect to hear that.”

Mr. Huntsman succeeds Clark T. Randt, whose more-than-seven-year term made him the longest-serving U.S. ambassador to China. Unlike Mr. Randt, who went to college with George W. Bush, Mr. Huntsman isn’t personally close to President Obama — and indeed is from the other main U.S. political party.

But Mr. Huntsman does have extensive experience in Asia. He was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, where he learned to speak mandarin Chinese fluently, and he served briefly as ambassador to Singapore. He also worked in the office of the U.S. trade representative when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

His family business, Huntsman Corp., has business ties in China, but Mr. Huntsman said he had long since sold his stake in the company and has no ties to it. He also said he had signed standard ethics papers recusing him from any issues surrounding the chemical company.

In the weeks before his departure, he said his adopted daughter eagerly anticipated returning to the country of her birth — a feeling that has become infectious. “I see it in her eyes every day the excitement of living in a place she never thought she’d return to,” he said.

He also recounted his own childhood experience: how as an 11-year-old he was at the White House where his father was working as a staff assistant. It was 1971 and Secretary of State Kissinger invited him to his office and let him take his bag to his car before setting out on one of the path-breaking trips to China, which led to the re-establishment of relations in 1979.

“The part I remember best was when I said where are you going?” Mr. Huntsman said. “He said please don’t tell anyone: ‘I’m going to China.’ ”

I do have a question about the relations between the 2 countries are on the ‘critical phase.’ China has more or less enjoyed the relationship with the US under the George W. Bush’s presidency. Huntsman’s predecessor Clark T. Randt Jr, did little to engage China on the sensitive issues while promoting economic ties between the 2 countries. Also, GWB’s insist to go to the Olympics opening ceremony despite mounting criticism was much a face saving gesture to China.

The other US presidents wasn’t as kind to China. Then first lady Hillary Clinton came to China in 1995 and ‘shamed’ China on women’s rights. George HW Bush put sanctions on China after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. GWB’s presidency was the best thing since Henry Kissinger decided to have formal ties with China. Could Barack Obama and Jon Huntsman do better than what GWB did during his 8 years of presidency?

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30 Responses to “Jon Huntsman Challenges in China”

  1. Dragan Says:

    He is hailed as an excellent mandarin speaker which apparently helps him do the job in Beijing. I wonder if that can be true? He’s been in Taiwan for 2 years and that is usually not even close to being enough for fluency required to smoothly discuss diplomatic affairs. I think it is only a good marketing on his and gov’t behalf.

    Re US China strategy, he did not give any signs that there will be any substantial departure from W’s era of friendship based on economic interest, which really did not see US engaging China on any of the important issues outside Korean Peninsula. Introduction of several high-level strategic forums certainly does minimize chances for crisis and helps mutual understanding but so far does not seem to lead toward genuine cooperation

  2. hongkonger Says:

    “Mr. Huntsman was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, where he learned to speak mandarin Chinese fluently, and he served briefly as ambassador to Singapore.”

    Mormon missionaries in HK speak superb Cantonese….they must a great foreign-language program.

  3. hongkonger Says:

    ops! Double posted. Sorry.

  4. Steve Says:

    @ Dragan & Hongkonger: I’ll second Hongkonger on the effectiveness of the Mormon language program… it’s excellent. I’ve talked to a few of them about this particular subject and before they set off for their mission, they undergo a rigorous language instruction course in the States and then it’s total immersion once they arrive in their host country. In fact, the foreign language instruction in American schools is so bad that I wish they’d scuttle the existing instructional methods and use the Mormon method in our schools.

    @ pug_ster: I read a similar article about Huntsman the other day. It’s still early but he sure looks like an excellent choice for that job. The Democratic party is usually more obsessed with Russia and Europe so having someone in China who understands not only the language but also the culture should make a big difference in cross cultural understanding. I think all of us on this blog, regardless of whether Chinese or another race, realize that a lot of the misunderstandings (though certainly not all) take place over cultural differences rather than always being policy issues. Sometimes how you say something is more important than what you say. It seems from this brief introduction that Mr. Huntsman will at least know how to say what he has to say in a more acceptable way.

    Per Dragan’s comment, I think the reason there hasn’t been more genuine cooperation between the two countries is simply a lack of trust in each other, and that takes time to build. There’s a certain amount of history to overcome and certainly the difference between the two systems of government, with the US government having considerably less control over other “voices” in the country expressing opinions or becoming involved in China issues than the CCP has in the other direction, being one of the stumbling blocks to better relations but that’s not going to change much over time. Maybe Mr. Huntsman can do a better job of explaining what the US government can and cannot do regarding its own citizens, and be more diplomatically aware of the Chinese cultural way of doing things and expressing opinions.

  5. Wukailong Says:

    @hongkonger: “Mormon missionaries in HK speak superb Cantonese….they must a great foreign-language program.”

    They do. A friend of mine who taught Swedish to immigrants once met an American guy who’d learned the language from a textbook called something like “The Prophet’s Guide to Swedish.” I’m sure there are many books like that.

    I also heard that there is a Mormon school with some of the best language courses taught in the US. Usually I’m not that much for organized religion, but it’s interesting how this particular interest of theirs have turned into very good schooling.

  6. Dragan Says:


    I agree generaly but think that there are many “practical’ issues of common interest and huge importance- such as Korean peninsula, Climate change, Mallaca straits security etc. that do not require that sort of mutual trust based on common values and, if you want,ideology – neither real strategic partnership – but need cooperation and prompt action from both. In my opinion, these are the issues that are urgent and should be used to build mutual trust and push the relationship in the right direction.

  7. pug_ster Says:

    Wow, response to my thread:)

    In the Western Media outlets, they often boast that Huntsman has excellent Chinese language skills and adopted a Chinese daughter. But I doubt that matters as many of the Chinese leaders and ambassadors understands Western culture and customs. Clark Randt was GWB’s college buddy and he probably has much less knowledge of China than Huntsman. So language and cultural knowledge is less than of an issue and what the 2 countries can offer to each other is more important.

    Recently there were discussions between the 2 countries about greenhouse reduction but I’ll be the devil’s advocate to say in reality that US want to sell China ‘green technology’ such as wind turbines. China can buy the same technology from other countries such as Germany but my guess is that the US is trying to woo them in doing so. I have no proof but this kind of backdoor deals are not uncommon.

    In an interesting news, there’s an recent article where US and Australia invite China to war games. I wonder this is a changing sign of the balance of power of China in the Pacific.


  8. Steve Says:

    @ Dragan #6: Yes, I agree with you. Trust is built up by solving mutual conflicts and common issues, not necessarily military ones but also economic, environmental and logistic, just as you suggest. I’m not sure that China has much influence these days in North Korea, though they do have more than anyone else. They seem to be the exception to everyone else’s rule.

    I’m curious why you mentioned the Malacca Straits. I didn’t realize there was a conflict in that area. The US Naval umbrella on all major ship routes helps every country. I know the pirate issue is a problem there, so I was wondering if you were referring to that or something else.

    @ pug_ster #7: Do you really think the Chinese bureaucrats truly understand western culture? If so, then why do they use language in press conferences, speeches and news articles that plays very poorly in the west? From where I stand, it seems both sides stare across a cultural divide, at least bureaucratically.

    Outside of one company in Arizona, it seems China is already ahead in solar technology and plans to sell it in the States rather than the other way around. I’m not sure about wind turbines; isn’t GE the big one for that over here? Does China currently build their own wind turbines? I always thought they did.

  9. pug_ster Says:

    @Steve #8

    Yeah you may be right about the culture thing and both sides stare across a cultural divide.


    In terms of solar energy, the US does not allow Chinese made solar panels to come to the states. However, they are making their solar panels here so they can sell them here.


    However, the wind turbines are made in the US and shipped to China. 7 percent of the wind power sold to China is by GE in 2007 is not alot, but I am guessing that they are trying to beat out their European rivals. BTW, I was wrong about Germany and wind power, and they are competing with Denmark’s Vestas.

  10. miaka9383 Says:

    @Pug_ster and Steve
    I have a very interesting fact or whatever… It is said that the reason we allow them making their solar panels here is because we based our original manufacturing system on Alexander Hamilton’s idea. It has been advocated by certain minority group of people that we go back to that… but the details of that Paper by Alexander Hamilton I am not sure about

  11. Steve Says:

    @ miaka: I’m not sure how Alexander Hamilton fits into all this. Hamilton believed in protectionism for fledgling industries which at their start were in no position to compete with British manufacturing. My guess is that the solar industry wants protection from solar panel manufactured in China so they’re invoking the name of Hamilton as a precedent.

  12. miaka9383 Says:

    I heard it on a liberal talk radio about how we need to go back to the Hamiltonian way… I think the paper he quoted was….Report on Manufacture and the Congress eventually adopted part of his ideal.
    Where we don’t export manufacturing but have other countries do manufacturing here in the States but Tax them heavily.

  13. Steve Says:

    Hi Miaka~

    Here it is in its entirety on Google Books. I’ll have to read it when I have more time, but I know he was a big fan of the British mercantilist system in place before the Revolution.

    The Wiki article with a synopsis of the report is here.

  14. Dragan Says:

    Hi Steve

    Mallaca is an important issue as a transportation bottleneck. While US navy might be the main factor that keeps the straits safe so far from the pirates, that certainly does not put chinese at ease as it gives enormous strategic advantage to US. While difficult to imagine at the moment, in case of worsening relationship or a crisis, at some point US could block all the oil tankers heading for China ( think it is between 60 and 80% of all oil China gets from abroad). This leads to chinese navy build up and string of pearls strategy making India nervous and taking the same way. Therefore, while there is not outright conflict the tensions are building up. If US (and its regional allies)decide to retain control over straits without incorporating china that would lead to more tensions. If China keeps to build its navy and at some point forcefully triees to increase its role in Mallaca straits ( which is the objective) the result would be the same. and there is India and Sino-US struggle over wooing SEA countries in the exclusive alliance to put in the equation too. so they need to increase transparency and coordinate the regional efforts, especially in Malacca Straits in order to avoid that tensions escalate and spread to other areas of their bilateral relationship.

  15. Steve Says:

    Hi Dragan~

    You wrote a very nice synopsis of the potential situation in the Malacca Straits. My reaction is that China’s naval efforts are still in the beginning stages so it’s not really much of an issue at this time. After burning the treasure fleet during the early Ming dynasty, China’s navy has been a littoral one until very recently. I believe the merchant escort mission in the Arabian Sea is the first time China’s navy has been that far from her home waters since Zheng He’s era.

    Realistically, China is 50+ years from being competitive with the US Navy but even in that case, I personally don’t see a confrontation with the United States on the horizon. By that time, I’d expect most Middle East oil would reach China via pipeline rather than being shipped, as those pipelines are being built as we speak. I also think China’s help in protecting the Malacca Straits from piracy would be welcome as it has been welcomed in the Arabian Sea. The more China interacts with the rest of the world militarily, the lesser chance of a confrontation in the future.

    It seems the “string of pearls” is geared more towards India than the United States. I’ve always felt that geopolitically, China and the US aren’t really rivals and that as China’s economy and political system matures, the countries will move closer to each other rather than further apart.

    Though it’s not something discussed in the open, the US Naval presence in protecting worldwide shipping routes is appreciated by virtually all other countries. It allows their shipping protected access while not being controlled by their major rivals, which in China’s case is Japan and Russia. Because the US is on another continent, has only two countries on its borders with neither being a danger, and has access to the two major oceans, the country is in a unique position to have extraordinary geopolitical influence without being a regional threat to the other world powers.

  16. Dragan Says:

    HI Steve,

    again, I generally agree : ) with everything you wrote. Sure, it is quite likely that China will not be in position to challenge US militarily on sea for a while, but that is not the point. The point is what you said above: the more China interacts with the world militarily, the lesser the chances of confrontation in the future. In SEA, this requires both China and US to be open, transparent and focused on common objectives.

    Chinese do search to expand their role in the region, and rightfully so. In terms of Malacca Strait, it is oil, but it is also most of its imports and exports that go through there. It is easy to understand why Beijing wants to strenghten its presence. The “Impeccable” incident earlier this year just highlights how Chinese grow more assertive (on sea as well) and sensitive to US presence in the region.

    To come back to the point, there is high level military dialogue and exchange happening between the two. However, it seems to me it is only form, without the substance, and the crisis could come and deepen anytime there is another “impeccable” or there is another issue-such as terrorist attack in Malacca or something unexpected. The substance would be joint patrols in Malacca Strait, coordinated surveilance of that area, data exchange etc. It does not require China and US to become REAL strategic friends , but it does mitigate the possibility for collision down the road and breeds the mutual trust while addressing an important, practical issue…

    I am not quite sure how much diplomats like Huntsman have a say in policy making, but if he wants to make a difference he would be better off facilitating the genuine cooperation on the issues like this. WHile your perception might be that US is a regional power that is not threat to others, that CERTAINLY is not the way Beijing sees it. Therefore I mentioned Malacca, as I think it offers a great opportunity to address Beijing’s fears but also acknowledge that US has a role to play in the region. that’s a real win-win

  17. Steve Says:

    Hi Dragan~

    My guess is that next time a ship like the Impeccable is in the “neutral zone”, so to speak, it’ll have a destroyer escort.

    Does China have enough deep water ships at this time to patrol both the Arabian Sea and the Malacca Straits? Does China need permission from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to be able to do so, or is that considered international waters outside the Law of the Sea treaty zone because it is so vital?

  18. Dragan Says:

    Hi Steve

    Not sure, I would prefer not to see the destroyers.That is exactly what US should avoid as it would lead to rising tensions.further more, rising tensions and US navy having a disproportionate role in Malacca Straits could lead to China sponsoring Kra Channel, which would definitely significantly shift the regional balance in China’s favour and away from US.

    I belive they have enough ships, and if they did not, it could be solved by multinational crews etc.The point is to mutually engage and cooperate. Yes, Straits is controlled by 3 litorall countries but, as can be seen with US initiatives, extra rights could be applied for and negotiated. The result should be that neither of the “outside” powers does not have dominant role over other.

  19. Steve Says:

    Hi Dragan~

    I know the two militaries have had talks since then about avoiding similar incidents, but no one knows the outcome of those talks so we’re only speculating. Thailand is a strong US ally so a Kra Canal would not be to China’s benefit either. In the end, the solution is political, not military. Let’s just hope both governments can work something out. Right now, everyone seems pretty happy with the job the US Navy is doing to keep the shipping lanes open so I don’t see any major changes in the near future. They’ve handled the “dominant” role well and by doing so, kept regional rivalries at bay. Sometimes having a dominant power is a good thing.

  20. Dragan Says:

    Hi Steve,

    great discussing this with you!

    re your point: Even that is questionable as SEA accounts for over 50% of pirate cases in the world as of 2007, and there are 31 cases already this year, 2 of them in Malacca Strait. The fact is that american initiative that gives them right to search ships they suspect carry illegal cargo in tha area is very disturbing for China, remembering the Yinhe incident. It opens doors for for abuse.So everyone else might be happy, but not China. So, if US does not accomodate China through cooperation, Chinese will force their way by building the navy and having separate deals with ASEAN where it already plays more important role generally than US.

    Re Kra, it is still open, but I understand that Chinese would be main donor and likely accordingly retain some of exclusive rights in terms of security. Thailand is US ally, but ASEAN – including Thailand – is leaning more and more towards China.

    so,yes political solution, but one based on acknowledging that US having a role to play but that gives China more space. While these are official stands of the two, nothing points that this thinking is being really implemented in reality. which I think raises suspicion on both sides and should be addressed by both administration – where hopefully HUntsman can play an important role

  21. Steve Says:

    Hi Dragan~

    It’s always fun to engage in a civil discussion with a knowledgeable and reasonable person such as yourself. 🙂

    I doubt a “Yinhe” type incident will occur in the foreseeable future. At that time (1993), it was just four years after Tiananmen and tensions were still pretty high. I think only North Korea is in danger of getting their ships searched. I still think China is a very long way away from having a highly competent Navy. It’s not just building ships that makes a Navy formidable but developing a culture of maritime expertise, experience and tradition. China’s navy has never been tested and has spent very little time away from its own home ports. I agree that in the future things can change, but not in the next 10-15 years. It takes that long just to initiate a reasonably sized building program and that doesn’t take into account the training required to man those new ships competently.

    I’d expect that Thailand would maintain security over the Kra Canal when finished. The Thai military is very, very good and Thailand has never been ruled by any foreign power in modern times. They will not be quick to give up authority in their own country, in my opinion based on what I’ve heard from friends I have in the military that have spent a lot of time there on joint training missions. San Diego is home to half the Navy SEALS and I’ve worked out with a few of them over the years so I’ve gotten some inside scoops.

    I completely agree with your last paragraph. Hopefully Huntsman can be a positive factor in improving dialogue. What I find most positive is that this ambassador actually knows the country he’s going to represent the US in, rather than most of these guys who are just fat cat political donors. That’s a major improvement over the past.

  22. Wukailong Says:

    @Steve (#21): “It takes that long just to initiate a reasonably sized building program and that doesn’t take into account the training required to man those new ships competently.”

    I guess you are familiar with the Chinese debate about getting an aircraft carrier? That is a sort of nationalist dream that is often discussed in very emotional terms, and I don’t know how many times I’ve seen headlines such as “When do we get our own aircraft carrier”. Since there is a belief this task should already have been carried out, there are plenty of theories as to why China still doesn’t have one. One taxi driver I talked to believed it was because China’s coastline is too long. 😉

    One explanation I’ve heard that makes a lot of sense and fits with what you described above is that a carrier is at the top of the navy ecosystem, so to speak. Without all the other warships needed for protection and surveillance of the “motherships”, it’s folly to build one. China still doesn’t have this ecosystem.

    10-15 years doesn’t seem too long a time to me. By that time, China will still have an economy much smaller than the US’, but given the constant hype, a lot of people will already believe China is the dominant superpower. 🙂

  23. Dragan Says:

    Hi Steve

    If I understand your points correctly, you think that US is capable of keeping its dominance on sea for a foreseeable future and therefore there are no incentives to work closely with China just yet?

    Well it might be true that chinese navy force is not an immediate threat to US in the region and elsewhere, but it is important for US to understand Chinese aspirations to streghten its security in Malacca and SEA, which are at least as legitimate as US efforts to stay tuned in and keep an important role for herself. Things are developing very fast on chinese side and it is even in US interest to keep China in check, and most effective way to do it is to involve her on the ground through joint exercises, joint patrols and other ways of cooperation. If US just keep on going after its own business, it will radicalize chinese thinking and strategy, which will not work for anyone’s benefit few years down the road.

  24. Steve Says:

    @ Wukailong #22: I’ve often wondered if aircraft carriers aren’t the new “battleships” of war, and are as easy to sink as the battleships were in WWII. What you said is very true: a battleship forms the nucleus of a carrier group with many other ships providing support for the carrier. With navies, it’s not just a “numbers” game but more about capabilities. I believe China will get a carrier within the next ten years because their perception is that they would only be considered a world class navy by having one.

    But beyond that, I still believe that manpower capability, especially in the officer corps, is China’s biggest weakness. There’s just no substitute for experience.

    @ Dragan #23: Sorry if I wasn’t clear, but my thinking is exactly the opposite of what you wrote. The US Navy has tried to work more closely with the Chinese navy with port of call visits, joint naval operations, etc. but the biggest impediment seems to be that some political event (such as selling weapons to Taiwan) causes China to cancel military cooperation programs as a sign of their displeasure. I believe this policy is shortsighted on the part of the Chinese government, and sacrifices their own naval goals for political ones. I believe you and I are on the same page as far as increased naval cooperation between the two countries.

  25. Dragan Says:

    Hi Steve, an interesting angle, as my perception is that US selling arms to taiwan is shortsighted as it distances China from US and raise cross-strait tensions. But I am aware that Chinese have pulled out from joint “projects” on several ocassions as a response to something they thought is primarely aimed against China and agree that it does not help. Yet, I am not sure to what extens that is a sacrifice of their own goals? Can you please elaborate further? Is it beacue that way chinese do not have “access” to rich practical experience of other naval forces and miss out opportunities to practice or because of something else?

  26. pug_ster Says:

    @Steve #8


    It seems that US is selling China the solar panels in the 2,000 megawatt farm in the Mongolian desert. I also have to point out this article in Chaindaily about warming US relations.


    Notice in the 2 articles they mention the Chinese legislator Wu Bangguo. It seems really suspicious about Mr Wu being welcomed by people like Pelosi after he signs into the solar farm deal.

  27. Steve Says:

    Hi pug_ster: Thanks for the two links. Yes, seems suspicious but that works both ways. American legislators act friendlier to Chinese legislators after big commercial agreement; Chinese legislators sign big commercial agreement to get better relations with American legislators. There is no such thing as a free lunch, at least in politics. 😉

  28. pug_ster Says:


    Another interesting article of military Cooperation.

  29. pug_ster Says:

    Another interesting Military Cooperation between US and China.


    It is kind of strange, it is front page news in Chinadaily yet in noticeably absent in ABC, NBC, and CBS. Maybe the US don’t want to seem to be cooperating with China.

  30. Steve Says:

    Good news, pug_ster. Thanks for the links. I’ve always liked the China Daily best of the three Chinese news sources I have bookmarked.

    I wouldn’t read too much into the lack of coverage in ABC, NBC & CBS. One military meeting another usually doesn’t get covered, no matter who it involves. Who do you think dictates what they cover? Do you feel they are in “cahoots” with each other in some way to determine what is and is not news? Just curious.

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