Posts tagged: Jon Huntsman

The NY Times Overreacts to U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan

By , February 2, 2010

In yesterday’s New York Times, Helene Cooper argued that the Obama Administration’s recent announcement of over $6 billion in arms sales to Taiwan shows a “new toughness” toward Beijing and perhaps even a “fundamentally new direction” in the Administration’s China policy.  But, by focusing on the arms sales, Ms. Cooper overemphasizes the event.  U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are far from novel or tough, and some may argue, periodically required under U.S. law.

Similarly, Beijing’s angry reaction was predictable.  In fact, for each prior Administration’s arms sales to Taiwan, the Chinese government has responded in much the same way: postponement of military-to-military meetings, issue formal protests with U.S. officials, and saber-rattling for the domestic consumption.  However, Beijing’s recent threat of sanctions against U.S. companies involved with the arms sales is new and serious.  But this is more a reflection of China’s growing confidence and less a reflection of a changed or “tough” U.S. policy toward China.

Why Does China Care so Much about Taiwan?  Isn’t it a Separate Country?

Nope, scrap that vision from your mind.  Taiwan is not a separate country, at least not in the eyes of the Chinese, Taiwanese or U.S. governments.   The People’s Republic of China (a.k.a. the mainland) views Taiwan (a.k.a. “The Republic of China”) as a renegade province and any relations between Taiwan and other countries is viewed as interference in the mainland’s domestic affairs.  While Taiwan has largely developed as an independent society, it agrees with the mainland’s assessment that there is only “one China.”  The Taiwanese government has never called for independence and the Kuo Min Tang party (pronounced Gwo min-dang and a.k.a. “the Nationalists” or KMT), which has ruled Taiwan for most of Taiwan’s separate existence, also espouses the view of “one China” and that eventually, the mainland and Taiwan will reunite.  The difference is who rules this reunited China.  For Taiwan, it’s the KMT; for the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

All of this stems from World War II.  After the War ended in 1945, the KMT and the CCP resumed their civil war, a civil war that was put on hold to fight the Japanese invasion from 1937 to 1945.  By 1949, the CCP’s victory was certain and the KMT government fled to the province of Taiwan to continue the Republic of China.

China DailyThus began the baffling existence of two Chinas – the communist People’s Republic of China on the mainland and the KMT’s Republic of China on Taiwan.  Each China claimed that it was the “official” and “rightful” China and the other a mere province; each forced the international community to recognize only one China – either China on the mainland or China on Taiwan – hence the birth of the “one China” policy.

The U.S. continued to ally itself with the KMT and the Republic of China, recognizing Taiwan as the official China and all but denying the existence of the mainland.  But starting in 1972, with President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the mainland, relations between the U.S. and the PRC began to improve and in 1979, the U.S. switched recognition of China from Taiwan to the mainland.

Obama’s Arms Sales to Taiwan Is Par for the Course in U.S.-China Relations

The Obama Administration’s recent announcement of arms sales to Taiwan follows a long line of arms sales by the U.S.  Almost every president since 1978 has sold arms to Taiwan.  In fact, the U.S., under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), is required to sell defensive arms to Taiwan.  In 1979, after changing recognition to mainland China, the U.S. did not want to leave its former ally completely open to attack or takeover.  As a result, Congress passed the TRA.

The TRA authorizes quasi-diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Taiwan.  For example, instead of having an official embassy on Taiwan, the TRA allows for the “American Institute in Taiwan.”  Additionally, and more importantly, the TRA established the U.S.’ responsibility toward Taiwan if it is threatened.  At issue here is the TRA’s requirement that the U.S. periodically sell defensive arms to Taiwan.

In announcing arms sales to Taiwan, the Obama Administration is merely following its obligations under the TRA.  green peopleAdditionally, the Obama Administration has not acquiesced to Taiwan’s request for F-16s.  During the George W. Bush Administration, Taiwan repeatedly requested the purchase of F-16s.  Similarly, Taiwan put out feelers with the Obama Administration to see if there was a possibility that they could purchase F-16s.  Again, Taiwan was told not to put in a formal request for F-16s.

The F-16s are a big issue since they are not “defensive” arms; Beijing would very much view a sale of F-16s to Taiwan as going a bit too far.  But Obama’s package to Taiwan merely includes the usual: Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, mine-hunting ships and information technology.

If the Obama Administration wanted to use the Taiwan arms sales requirement to “toughen” its stance to Beijing as the New York Times claims it has, the Administration would have acquiesced to Taiwan’s request for F-16s.  Instead, it merely sold similar arms to Taiwan that President George W. Bush sold in 2008.

This is not to say that the Obama Administration does not have a strong China policy.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent policy speech on internet freedom was a robust critique of countries like China that censor their internet and partake in cyberhacking.  This follows President Obama’s strong and public criticism of internet censorship while in China this past November.  The New York Times would have done better to focus its argument on the Administration’s novel and forceful rhetoric on internet freedom vis-à-vis China.

Obama’s Town Hall in Shanghai – Reading Between the Lines

By , November 18, 2009

Chinese Students applaud after President Obama's Town Hall in Shanghai on Monday

Chinese Students applaud after President Obama's Town Hall in Shanghai on Monday

Originally Posted on the Huffington Post.

Beijing, China – With scripted questions from the audience and a speech lacking particulars, President Barack Obama’s Shanghai town hall on Monday likely looked like a flop to the American audience. At the very least, it was a far cry from the free-wheeling town halls during Obama’s primaries and general election battles.

But this is not Iowa or Virginia. This is China, where the concept of the people questioning their leaders, holding them accountable or even talking directly to them is so foreign that there isn’t even a word for it. Monday’s event was translated as “mian dui mian” or face-to-face, which seems more apt for a talk show than a discussion with a world leader.

The very fact that President Obama was able to host a town hall in China should be viewed as a huge accomplishment. But more than anything, the town hall should be seen as a coming attraction of the new Administration’s China policy and China’s likely response. Below are some important takeaways from President Obama’s Shanghai town hall.

Takeaway #1 – Hosting a Town Hall in China is, In and of Itself, a Success
Town halls just do not happen in China. In an authoritarian state, there is little need for the leadership to answer directly to the people. This is not to say, however, that China’s top officials are completely immune from the citizenry’s complaints. The fact that, after extensive uproar in online chatrooms, the Chinese government lifted its requirement to install the spyware software Green Dam on every computer, shows that it sometimes does respond to public demands, albeit in a rather circuitous way. But direct accountability or accessibility is not common.

But while the Chinese leadership would prefer to keep it this way, it is questionable if the Chinese people will continue to agree with this approach. Premier Wen Jiabao’s (pronounced When Geeah-bao) popularity among the Chinese people is unparalleled precisely because he has been more accessible and accountable (In January 2008, Premier Wen, after a fluke snowstorm in the south shut down the railroads, went to various train stations to apologize to the millions of people stranded during the Chinese new year festival).

Thus at such a critical juncture, President Obama’s town hall provides the Chinese people with a look at an alternative form of leadership. What’s more, President Obama chose to speak to the young and educated, the segment of society that likely feels the grip of the government the most and likely the most idealistic for change. It is no wonder that the Chinese side gave a tremendous amount of push back to the President’s request for a town hall, only agreeing to it a few days before the event. In a relationship where it is often just best to lead by example, a town hall with the President of the United States is perhaps the best example of accountable leadership.

Takeaway #2 – China’s Increasingly Tight Grip – Comparing the Obama & Clinton Visits
But it is questionable if the President achieved his goal of speaking to the Chinese public, showing the Chinese government’s continuing control over the people’s access to information. The Chinese government refused to

Watching the President's Shanghai Town Hall on the Internet in a Starbucks in Beijing

Watching the President's Shanghai Town Hall on the Internet in a Starbucks in Beijing

broadcast the event on the government run China Central Television (CCTV), and then reneged last minute on broadcasting it live on the Xinhua News Agency’s website (the Beijing morning papers on Monday all reported that the event would be broadcast late that morning live on Xinhua’s website). Even clips of the town hall have not been shown on Chinese evening news. Ultimately, the event could only be watched through the White House’s website, giving only those Chinese people who know there is a White House website access to the event (Youtube is a blocked site in China).

In 1998, when President Bill Clinton visited Beijing, his speech to the students of Peking University received top billing from the Chinese government. The state-run media discussed his Peking University appearance for days prior and the speech was broadcast live on CCTV as well as on radio. Additionally, President Clinton appeared on a radio show in Shanghai to answer questions directly from call-ins.

So why the change? Is it that the Chinese government fears Barack Obama’s popularity more than Bill Clinton’s? Maybe, but not likely. President Clinton was very popular in China during his presidency and remains extremely popular today. In some ways, President Clinton’s speech at Peking University focused more directly on the need for greater human rights in China than even President Obama’s recent town hall.

Bill Clinton's State Visit to China, June 1998

Bill Clinton's State Visit to China, June 1998

The change has more to do with the Chinese government’s increasing ambivalence toward moving forward on the fronts of access to information, development of a civil society and greater political freedom for its people. By now, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must realize that greater independence for its people means less control for them; the CCP remains afraid to give up this control and not just for selfish reasons. For the past 30 years, this control has enabled the Chinese government to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, better the lives of a billion people and in record-breaking time become an economic power horse. Its formula has worked, there is no doubting that. But as its growth plateaus, which it inevitably will, as the gap between rich and poor continue to grow, and as certain segments of society press for greater freedoms, whether the CCP can continue with the current ruling philosophy of control remains to be seen.

Takeaway #3 – Obama’s Human Rights Agenda – It’s There but It’s Not What You Think
This brings us to the third and final takeaway from President Obama’s town hall – where the Administration stands on human rights in China and what the U.S. should being doing to promote these rights.

Obama discussed another great wall on Monday - China's internet firewallIn terms of human rights, President Obama discussed the source of America’s core values, the positive results of such core values to the American experience, and stated that he believed some of these values are universal. However, his focus on the American context of these values belied their universal nature. Many of the values President Obama listed, such as freedom of religion and of expression, are protected by the Chinese Constitution; the difference lies in each countries’ restrictions. President Obama likely could have made a stronger case for these principles’ universalities by pointing to the fact that China itself has stated its commitment to these values, but still has a ways to go to get there. In his speech in 1998, President Clinton did an excellent job of citing to the revered Chinese political philosopher Hu Shi (pronounced Who Shi) in his call for greater democratic freedom.

But in terms of specifics, President Obama went for a decidedly more modern human right – freedom of expression on the internet. First, some background. When the U.S. and China agreed to have a town hall, knowing that the students present at the town hall would likely be hand-selected by the government and would have scripted questions, the U.S. side requested that questions be submitted via the internet. The Chinese side agreed and Xinhua News Agency opened its website to questions for President Obama. However, internet chat rooms are often no less scripted in China, especially for politically-sensitive matters. The CCP hires a large number of people to police these chat rooms and steer the discussion in a direction more agreeable to the CCP.

And that is where the U.S. found itself when it allowed Xinhua news agency to organize the internet questions, a discussion of soft-ball questions like what was it like to win the Noble Peace Prize. As a result, the U.S. Embassy began its own webpage, encouraging Chinese people to send in their questions to their unregulated site. The vast majority of these questions pertained to the Chinese government’s censorship of the internet, blocking out politically sensitive information and shutting down social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook (this is not surprising since the Chinese people who knew to access the U.S. Embassy website are the most internet-savvy and thus likely the most frustrated with the Chinese government’s control.). Ambassador Huntsman’s question about President Obama’s stance on internet censorship came from the U.S. Embassy’s website.

President Obama’s response to the question, while veiled, was shockingly strong. In no uncertain terms, he expressed the belief that a free internet has made America a strong country, made him a better leader, and allows the people to hold their leaders accountable, thus implying that a censored internet has the opposite effect. The implication was likely not lost on the Chinese students.

It appears that the Obama Administration’s human rights agenda for China will focus around internet censorship. The Chinese government has spent a tremendous amount of time and resources in controlling the internet, and has largely been successful at stamping out content it deems objectionable, so it likely did not take too kindly to President Obama’s answer. But will this be enough to help China live up to many of its ideals? Can the internet solely replace the need for a functioning civil society, another area that the Chinese government is clamping down on? Or will it just be a place to shop like it is in many other countries? This remains to be seen. I for one would have very much liked it if President Obama, in answering the question about the path to being a Nobel Peace Prize winner, mentioned his role as a public interest attorney and acknowledged the importance of public interest law to a secure and functioning society. I only hope that this was mentioned at the very least behind closed doors in his meetings with President Hu.

What to Expect from President Obama’s Visit to China – A Primer

By , November 3, 2009

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.

Obama & Hu share the stage in Pittsburgh.  Soon it will be Beijing.

Obama & Hu share the stage in Pittsburgh. Soon it will be Beijing.

President Obama will visit China, his first trip to the country, from November 15 through the 18.  Although his visit is less than two weeks away, the question remains – what will be on the agenda for his three days in China.  While the White House has yet to release President Obama’s schedule, expect President Obama and President Hu Jintao (pronounced Who Gin-tao) to discuss military ties, global economic health, climate change and human rights.  

(1)   Improved US-China Military Relations – Let’s Hope

While U.S.-China economic ties bring the two nations into alignment on various issues, military-to-military relations remain dangerously tense.  President George W. Bush realized this early on in his presidency after a U.S. spy plane crashed with a Chinese military jet and was then forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island in China.  For a few days, it was unclear what the Chinese military would do with the captured U.S. pilots, leading to the acknowledgement that better communication between the two militaries was necessary.  

President Obama has already had a taste of the danger of weak military ties this past March, when five Chinese naval vessels circled and threatened a U.S. navy ship in international waters, 75 miles off of Hainan Island.  

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is largely to blame for the lack of communication between the two militaries.  Historically, the PLA has remained secretive about its military development and has usually refrained from military-to-military relations with other countries, although that is slowly changing.  While the Clinton Administration made some headway, at least on paper with the signing of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), suspicion between the two militaries has remained high and there are no procedures in place for each country’s military to follow should unexpected events occur.   The U.S.’ military agreements with all other countries, including Russia, contain provisions to deal with emergency incidents to prevent their escalation.

As an emerging superpower and already a regional one, minor military incidents with China will likely continue to

Xu Caihou & Robert Gates - maintaining close ties?

Xu Caihou & Robert Gates - maintaining close ties?

occur, especially as China rapidly expands its military spending and build-up. Without better communication, these incidents can easily turn to major crises.  The Obama Administration appears to recognize this danger.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates just concluded a meeting with Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Xu Caihou (pronounced Sue Tsai-ho) in Washington, D.C. after Mr. Xu spent a week in the U.S. viewing U.S.  military bases and meeting with other military leaders. 

Securing a better understanding between the two nations’ militaries would be no small feat.  The PLA remains a very powerful, and largely independent, force within the Chinese government and President Hu Jintao’s control over the organization remains questionable (see Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower, p. 73).  But it appears that President Obama, especially after the March 2009 incident in the South China Sea, recognizes the importance of pushing China forward to secure better military ties.  However, anticipate that China will raise the issue of U.S. arm sales to Taiwan, and may very well use that as a bargaining chip for better U.S.-China military relations. 

(2)   Coordination on the Global Economic Crisis – Tow Superpowers Tied Together

To make it through the current global economic crisis, China needs the U.S. and the U.S. needs China.  While China’s stimulus package has taken hold quicker then its American counter-part, China’s future is still largely dependent on the U.S.’ success.  Last year, China surpassed Japan as the largest holder of U.S. Treasuries, holding approximately $800 billion (25% of total U.S. Treasuries); this amount accounts for approximately 40% of China’s foreign reserves.  In order for the U.S. to continue to fund its stimulus, it needs China to continue to purchase U.S. Treasuries.  But at the same time, China right now has no choice but to hold the treasuries, intertwining China with the future of the U.S. economy. 

Because of this arrangement, expect China to scold the U.S. on its increasingly high levels of debt.  This though is more for the domestic Chinese market than actually for U.S. policy makers.  The Chinese government’s hands are tied – it cannot sell off their Treasuries; its act of selling would inevitably cause market to decrease the price of U.S. Treasuries while China is attempting to sell.  But it still has to show the Chinese people that it is doing something. 

On the U.S. side, anticipate the issue of currency manipulation to be raised but not to be discussed in-depth.  Commerce Secretary Gary Locke raised the issue on his trip to Guangzhou last week, a surprise since currency has not been a high priority as of late.  However, for certain U.S. industries, such as the steel industry, China’s currency policy remains a viable issue. 

In terms of trade issues, such as the recent U.S. tariffs on tires and Chinese threats to slap tariffs on certain U.S. imports in response, expect some discussion.  But largely, this “trade war” has become much less of a problem.

Instead, U.S.-China discussions on the economy will likely entail how U.S. and Chinese companies can continue to work together.    

(3)   Climate Change & Copenhagen – “I’ll Go If You Go”

Do not expect much in terms of climate change.  Todd Stern, the Administration’s special envoy on the issue, announced last week that a bi-lateral agreement is not likely to emerge from President Obama’s and President Hu’s discussions on climate change.  Instead, the heads of state of the two leading emitters of greenhouse gases are hoping to reach “a common understanding.” 

Anticipate that a “common understanding” will involve a discussion of financial and technical assistance to China to help combat climate change.  As of the U.N. General Assembly in September, the U.S. and China do not see eye-to-eye on this issue.  While the European Union has pledged to provide financial assistance to developing countries, including China, the Obama Administration has yet to agree to such assistance to China.  However, it is this issue that the U.S. should attempt to parlay into actual emission targets from China. 

In terms of greater technical assistance, expect President Obama to ask for more protection of intellectual property and actual enforcement of the law in China, an issue Commerce Secretary Gary Locke recently raised on his October 2009 trip to China. 

Finally, the success of the Obama-Hu talks on climate change will determine whether either leader will join the rest of the world in Copenhagen in December.  This is pretty much a package deal; if the U.S. and China reach a “common understanding,” expect both Obama and Hu to attend Copenhagen.  If they do not, expect both to be watching it on T.V. from home. 

(4)   Human Rights & Rule of Law – This is Where the Surprise will Lie

Whether President Obama brings up the issue of human rights is currently the big “if” of his visit.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received tremendous backlash, both at home and internationally, when she heavily implied that the U.S. would not press China on human rights at the expense of other issues. 

However, during Ambassador Huntsman’s Senate confirmation hearing, he repeatedly stressed the importance of a continuous dialogue with China on human rights.  Furthermore, the release of activist-attorney Xu Zhiyong upon Ambassador Huntsman’s arrival to Beijing is likely a reflection of pressure from high up in the Administration (Xu Zhiyong ‘s organization received financial support from Yale University, Secretary Clinton’s alma mater).  But more than anything else, Xu Zhiyong’s detention made apparent to the Administration the important role that the U.S. still plays to many of these Chinese human rights activists; the U.S. still serves as their beacon of hope, and often gives these activists the courage to push forward when many in their country and their government work against them. 

Will President Obama make public comments about human rights?  Expect something.  Likely though, the issue of human rights will be painted as one of “rule of law.”  Recently, a group of Chinese lawyers convened a press conference in China imploring President Obama to raise the issue of human rights but in terms of their ability to bring cases in court concerning religious freedom and human rights.  Additionally, the Xu Zhiyong case showed the still arbitrary nature of the Chinese justice system.

Obama Before the Crowds in Germany.  Will it be the same in China?

Obama Before the Crowds in Germany. Will it be the same in China?

In Beijing, rumors abound on whether President Obama, like his Democratic predecessor President Bill Clinton, will speak at one of the many universities in the capital.  President Clinton’s speech at Peking University was historic, impressive and broadcasted to the Chinese people; the capital essentially stood still while he spoke.  Given President Obama’s panache for large-scale, media-friendly events, it is very likely that Chinese officials will allow a speech to the Chinese people.  However, will the Chinese state-controlled media appropriately translate President Obama’s speech remains to be seen.  Even President Obama’s inaugural speech, which never even mentioned China, was partially censored.

Huntsman Arrives in China; Xu Zhiyong, Zhang Lu & Ilham Tohti are Released

By , August 25, 2009

A day after Ambassador Huntsman’s arrival in Beijing, Chinese authorities released three prominent activists on

Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

Sunday: Xu Zhiyong, founder of Gongmeng, a public interest law organization, Xu’s assistant Zhang Lu, and economics professor and Uighur Online founder, Ilham Tohti.

Both Xu and Zhang were released on bail, a very rare occurrence under Chinese law, signifying that higher authorities likely gave approval to release the two.  Although bail is theoretically available, in the vast majority of criminal cases, the suspect remains in custody until trial.

The circumstances surrounding Tohti’s release are much less clear, but it appears that charges against him are no longer pending.

Was it U.S. pressure on the Chinese government that secured the release of these three activists?  While it likely played a role, there are other important factors that influenced the Chinese government.  First, there was significant domestic pressure, especially for the release of Xu and Zhang.  Through small donations, some as little as five or one yuan, Gongmeng was able to raise over 800,000 yuan (over $115,000) to pay the fine imposed by the tax courts.   Additionally, a group of well-regarded academics and professionals issued an open letter to the Chinese government requesting the release of Xu and Zhang.

In addition to the domestic support for Xu and Zhang’s release, a second factor that likely played a part is that their actions are viewed as less threatening to the Chinese government.  Xu’s organization, Gongmeng, worked within the

Activist, Gao Zhisheng

Activist, Gao Zhisheng

legal system, using the very laws passed by the National People’s Congress to protect the rights of vulnerable individuals.  Other activists who have taken a more strident approach to the Chinese government have not been released.  Gao Zhisheng, an attorney who has ardently represented members of the religious organization Falun Gong and who also openly called on western nations to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was taken into custody in February 2009 and has not been heard from since.

Although Gao Zhisheng and Liu Xiaobo and many others remain in Chinese police custody, the release of Xu, Zhang and Tohti should still be viewed with guarded optimism.  Evidently, for those activists who do not go too far, the Chinese government does respond to domestic and international pressure.  However, what it means to “go too far” is still unclear and detention of activist attorneys will likely continue.

But Ambassador Huntsman and President Obama should see the release of these three activists as a positive sign, and should continue with the dialogue they have evidently already started with the Chinese government.

Jon Huntsman CONFIRMED as U.S. Ambassador to China

By , August 9, 2009

On Friday, the day before breaking for a month-long recess, the Senate finally confirmed Gov. Jon Huntsman as U.S.

Our New Ambassador to China!

Our New Ambassador to China!

Ambassador to China.  In the coming weeks, Ambassador Huntsman, his wife and two youngest daughters will move to Beijing.  In addition to managing the U.S.-China relationship and working with Chinese officials on North Korea, climate change and other difficult issues, Ambassador Huntsman will also be helping to arrange President Obama’s first trip to China, scheduled for this fall.

For more information from the Salt Lake Tribune, click here.

For an analysis on the Huntsman confirmation from the China Daily’s English edition, click here.

News Alert: Vote on Jon Huntsman Confirmation POSTPONED

By , July 29, 2009

On Tuesday, the Senate delayed voting on the confirmation of Jon Huntsman as the next Ambassador to China. Reason for the delay is unclear although the Senate has said that it still needs to compile paperwork.

While some in the press seem to speculate that the hold up could be due to issues related to Gov. Huntsman’s large financial holdings, it could also simply be the Senate overworked with the Sotomayor confirmation, health care reform and other issues.

Voting on Gov. Huntsman’s confirmation has been postponed to next Tuesday or Wednesday (August 4 or 5).  Congress’ last day before its month-long summer recess is Friday, August 7.  It appears that Gov. Huntsman’s  confirmation is coming down to the wire.

More information can be found here.

The Hunt for a New China Policy: A Review of the Jon Huntsman Confirmation Hearing

By , July 25, 2009

Gov. Jon Huntsman at his confirmation hearing, July 23, 2009

Gov. Jon Huntsman at his confirmation hearing, July 23, 2009

Originally posted on ChinaGeeks

Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearing for the next ambassador to China was a virtual love-fest from both sides of the aisle.  Democratic senators gushed about Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s China background and Mandarin language skills and Republican senators John McCain, Orin Hatch and Bob Bennett attended the hearing to show their ardent support for the nominee.  There is little doubt that Gov. Huntsman – a Republican governor, nominated as Ambassador to China by a Democrat president – will be confirmed on Tuesday when the full Senate meets to vote on his nomination.  But his confirmation hearing still proved a telling sign of the Administration’s priorities in its relationship with China (nominees are always prepped for weeks prior to their hearing by Administration officials).

In his opening statement Gov. Huntsman stressed the importance of working with China on two high-priority fronts: first, repairing the international economy and second, maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia.  In what was likely a nod to the Chinese government and an acknowledgement of the increasing tension with North Korea as illustrated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Asia, Gov. Huntsman highlighted China’s leadership in organizing the six-party talks and commended China on working closely, and successfully, with the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council in dealing with North Korea.  Gov. Huntsman also mentioned other areas where the U.S. and China must continue to work together: advancing global counter-terrorism efforts, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, combating extremism and promoting stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and promoting better governance and development in places like Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe.

Most people believe that President Obama nominated Gov. Huntsman solely for strategic reasons – to eliminate a strong Republican presidential candidate in 2012.  But that could easily be only partially true.  Another reason is that Gov. Huntsman is actually a very good pick to represent the U.S. in a relationship that has become much more delicate as it becomes more important.  Gov. Huntsman has a strong China background, experiencing first-hand Chinese societies in Taiwan (during his time as a Mormon missionary) and Singapore (as Ambassador).  Additionally, during the hearing, Gov. Huntsman supported continued human rights discussions with the Chinese, criticizing our current approach as too “on-again-off-again.” Instead he advocated for a regularized and systematic forum where issues such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, rule of law, and access to information can continuously be discussed.  While some might argue that this was mere political posturing to secure votes from Congress, Gov. Huntsman’s statement is a noted departure from Secretary Clinton’s recent announcement that human rights cannot interfere with our handling of other crises. Such a departure provides credibility that Gov. Huntsman sincerely wants to make human rights issues a regular part of his dialogue with the Chinese.  Also, his experience in Taiwan and Singapore provide him with the alternative perspective that economic development in a culturally-Chinese society does not necessarily require the authoritarian regime that currently exists on the mainland.

Although Gov. Huntsman’s approach to human rights is slightly different from the Administration’s, he whole-heartedly supports the Administration’s focus on climate change in U.S.-China relations, deviating from many of his Republican colleagues.  In discussing caps on greenhouse gases, Gov. Huntsman maintained that the U.S. should support an agreement on climate change with China, viewing any agreement as an economic, exporting opportunity.  The U.S. will become a leader in clean air and energy efficiency industries, industries that he argued would likely dominate the global economy for the next 20 to 40 years.  Unfortunately, Gov. Huntsman did not address the intellectual property concerns of exporting U.S. clean energy technology to China, a thorny issue that will certainly prove tricky in any discussions on climate change.

The nomination of Gov. Huntsman is a telling signal that the Obama Administration perhaps grasps the realities of the new China.  The China today is not the China that existed 30 years ago when the U.S. first normalized relations.  In only the past few years, China has quickly emerged as a global leader with a strong economy, large militarily and significant influence on other countries.   Today, the U.S. negotiates with a power that in many ways is its equal; one that can easily walk away from the negotiating table.  For the next few years, the U.S. and China will have to be able to cooperate on a myriad of tough issues that could impact the future of our world order – climate change, trade, humanitarian crises, currency, terrorism, just to name a few.  It is important to have a representative in Beijing who understands how to effectively negotiate with the Chinese and find common ground between our two nations, but at the same time is willing to stand his ground when our interests diverge, which, at times, will be unavoidable.  Gov. Huntsman, with his knowledge of Chinese culture, language skills, and his courage to buck his own party and accept the nomination, could likely be the best person for the job.

Gov. Huntsman, his wife and the author (on the right) after the confirmation hearing

Gov. Huntsman, his wife and the author (on the right) after the confirmation hearing

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