Walking a thin red line

Updated: 2011-06-22 10:35

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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 Walking a thin red line
Former United States ambassador to China Jon Huntsman waves to supporters before announcing his candidacy for the Republican US presidential 2012 campaign at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, on Tuesday. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

NEW YORK - Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who officially declared his presidential candidacy on Tuesday, will likely downplay his most recent posting as United States ambassador to China to put some distance between himself and President Barack Obama in order not to alienate the conservative voters of the Republican Party, according to observers on both sides of the Pacific.

Huntsman served as ambassador to China from 2009 until his resignation two months ago.

In declaring his candidacy, Huntsman stressed that he is "a real conservative" who believes that the "best long-term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home" as broadcast in recorded comments before he spoke to a gathered crowd of 150 people. Huntsman also invoked the icon of the Republican Party by choosing to make his announcement at New Jersey's Liberty State Park, the same site that Ronald Reagan declared his presidential candidacy in 1980.

"His ambassadorship to China will be a negative in the primaries," said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute. "The people who vote in the Republican primaries tend to be to the right of the center of gravity of the party. Huntsman will be advised to put considerable distance between himself and China, and will likely avoid the issue. The polls currently suggest that his experience in China will actually harm him in the conservative segment of the race."

The economic downturn will inevitably be the primary focus of the campaign, Lieberthal said.

"Our current fiscal situation in the US will be priorities 1, 2 and 3 in the presidential election," Lieberthal said. "It's the core issue, and one of such dramatic importance that it will dominate the election. While there are arguments that tie China into our fiscal challenges, the reality is that the US and Chinese economies are deeply interdependent and no responsible candidate would propose any great change to our current policy. Further, if Huntsman wins the candidacy, how would Obama criticize Huntsman when Huntsman's experience in China is in carrying out Obama's own policies?

"I think that unless something dramatic occurs, China is likely to be an echo in the campaign, but not a central issue in it," he added.

Nevertheless, Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said: "As former US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman is unlikely to take a tough attitude in his remarks on China this time, because he worked hard to improve bilateral relations between China and the US in 2010. If he were to suddenly change his position toward China, his Democratic opponent can say that he is a two-faced politician."

"However," Shi added, " in order to cater to US politicians and voters who consider China the US's biggest competitor, Huntsman will be tough on China's trade, monetary and human rights policies. But in general, he will adopt a gentle tone to express his opinion in judging China."

Several of those who attended Huntsman's rally saw his record of bipartisanship and experience in China as an asset for economic reasons.

"With his business background and executive experience, he has the right combination to be the best Republican chance to win the White House in 2012," said Chris Thomas, who works in financial services. "Right now, China is coming up as one of the big challenges for the United States, particularly economically, and it can only be a benefit to have someone with that background in office.

"When he gave up his governorship to serve under Obama, I thought it was truly interesting that someone would take an ambassadorship under a president of the opposing party," Thomas said. "I think that speaks volumes about his commitment to service."

Colin Smith, who runs an elementary school charity, also listed Huntsman's experience working under Obama as an asset.

"His working for the Obama administration demonstrates that he's willing to do what's in the best interest of the country," Smith said. "Among the current Republican candidates, there's not a lot of foreign policy experience. But here's a guy who's worked in China, a country that in a lot of people's minds, is going to be the most important relationship that we have going forward."

Stanley Wong, a Chinese-American law student who usually votes for Democrats, said that in Huntsman, he sees a moderate candidate with a multilateral perspective.

Zhong Nan contributed to this story.

China Daily

(China Daily 06/22/2011 page1)


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