Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beijing tickled by Obama's China envoy

Missionary to Middle Kingdom

Beijing tickled by Obama's China envoy

Asia Times 21 May 2009
By Ian Williams

United States President Barack Obama has shown an ability to please almost everybody, apart from the irreconcilable conservative wing of the Republican Party. His nomination of Jon Huntsman as ambassador to Beijing has not only demonstrated his bipartisanship to moderate voters and Republicans, it has removed a potential Republican rival for the 2012 elections - and perhaps more significantly has China purring with satisfaction.

The 49-year-old Utah governor is a Mormon of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, a religious group whose members have had a disproportionate representation in foreign policy circles in Washington because they are in many ways the most outward

looking group in the US.

Young Mormons have a requirement to undertake missionary activities abroad and learn the languages. Perhaps fortunately, Huntsman's mission was in Taiwan, rather than a less welcoming mainland. Even though the mission was only for one year, he learned to speak Mandarin, a skill he deployed at his press conference accepting the nomination, where he promised to look for the issues that unite the two countries.

He and his wife later adopted a Chinese girl. His relationship with the region also includes a stint as ambassador to Singapore under the George H W Bush administration and as a deputy United States trade representative for George W Bush, during which he held trade talks with China.

Beijing has responded enthusiastically to the nomination of an envoy with proven sensitivity to Chinese culture and an appreciation of the nation's importance. The People's Daily hailed the appointment of "Hong Bopei", his Chinese name, as "good steel being used where it is needed most", and noted the importance of Obama securing Republican consensus for its China policy.

Indeed, the importance of China is unchallenged in Washington, given how essential Chinese finance is for any recovery plans. However, given that in former house speaker Tip O'Neill's dictum "all politics is local", there will certainly be point-scoring politicians prepared to mount an offensive on trade and currency issues, and Huntsman should be able to help control them, not least of which due to his close ties to Republican Senator John McCain, for whom he campaigned vigorously and prominently.

Beijing expects Huntsman, as a Republican, to concentrate on issues of diplomatic and economic substance, and also to be able to keep his own party's partisan instincts under control. Beijing has somewhat exaggerated worries about Democratic Party concerns over human rights and democracy in China, which tend to be rhetorical rather than practical. In fact, on the Democratic side, Obama's lieutenants should have little difficulty curbing his own party. All it takes is a discreet reminder of the importance of Beijing's good-will to the recovery program.

While influential, an ambassador does not decide policy. That will be Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the usual suspects in Washington. But Huntsman's influence as envoy and an important politician in his own right will ensure the US avoids the gratuitous insults to Chinese dignity that characterize less sensitive and experienced American politicians.

Observers in the US expect him to be adroit in balancing friendliness with firmness. There are serious issues, from North Korea's nuclear program to the naval squabbles in the waters off China that need cooperation, and where either perceived weakness or insults could exacerbate the situation.

Obama's administration has shown signs of having the most "joined-up" foreign policy for decades, combining pragmatism with principle. It should be refreshing for China to know what they are dealing with, and Huntsman should be an able representative of a policy that he is unlikely to disagree with in any substantial way.

He also has an incentive. Success in China - certainly one of, if not the most important American diplomatic post - will play into his presidential ambitions for 2016 when, as most people expect, the defeat of an expected diehard conservative Republican in 2012 will pave the way for a moderate like Huntsman.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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