Obama taps Republican governor as China envoy
WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama unveiled his pick of Republican rising star Jon Huntsman, the governor of Utah, to the critical post of US ambassador to China.
"I can think of no one better suited to take on this assignment," Obama said alongside fluent Mandarin speaker Huntsman in a televised address at the White House.
"I can think of no more important assignment than creating the kinds of bridges between our two countries that will determine the well being, not just of Americans and Chinese, but also the future of the world," he said.
Relations between the two nations have taken on rising import in the last decade as China has embraced its role as a leading global economy and as push for regional security has been spurred by tense standoffs with nuclear North Korea.
"What Jon brings to this post isn't just a steadfast commitment, it's a lifetime of knowledge and experience that will help advance this important partnership," Obama said.
Huntsman understands "what it will take to make America more competitive in the 21st century," the president said, adding that the governor will be an "unstinting advocate" of American interests in the region and for promoting US "ideals, including in North Korea."
Obama said that "improved relations with China will require candor and open discussion about those issues where we don't always agree, such as human rights and democracy and free speech. And it will require that each of our nations play by the rules in open and honest competition.
"And that's why this ambassadorship takes on such importance," Obama stressed.
The Mormon son of billionaire chemical businessman Jon Huntsman, the governor was a national campaign co-chair of Obama rival John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
"I grew up understanding that the most basic responsibility one has is service to country," Huntsman said upon accepting the position, which still requires US Senate confirmation.
"When the president of the United States asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that, to me, is the end of the conversation and the beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge," Huntsman added.
"You have my commitment that we will take the US-China relationship to new heights, focused not just on that which divides us, but more importantly, on that which unites us."
Huntsman finished his remarks speaking in Mandarin, quoting the Chinese aphorism: "Together we work, together we progress."
His diplomatic experience -- Huntsman was ambassador to Singapore in the George H.W. Bush administration and a trade envoy under president George W. Bush -- prepares him "to be frank with our Chinese friends when we disagree on human rights, democracy, and other matters," Obama said.
Huntsman, 49, learned Mandarin Chinese when he served on a Mormon mission in Taiwan.
He has been seen as a moderate voice in the Republican Party and was a popular governor -- he gained 70 percent of the vote in November for a second term as Utah's leader, though he has said he would not stand for a third run.
In recent years Huntsman served as Bush's deputy US trade representative and has negotiated several agreements with China.
He and his wife Mary Kaye have seven children, including two daughters adopted from China and India.
Huntsman, replacing the current long-serving US envoy Clark Randt, started out in public service in the 1980s as a White House staff assistant to president Ronald Reagan.
In 2006, he led a trade mission to China "because of their prominence on the world stage and the way in which they are growing so rapidly," he told the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Obama came to office vowing to reach across the aisle and include Republicans in his administration.
In a bipartisan gesture he retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the post he had served in the previous Bush administration.
Accepting the appointment likely means Huntsman gives up the possibility of challenging Democrat Obama in the 2012 presidential election and putting such ambitions on hold until 2016, when Obama is no longer eligible to run, political pollster Dan Jones told the Deseret Morning News Saturday.
"I really think he's wanted to be secretary of state or ambassador to China. He really feels like he can make a major difference," Jones said.
"Maybe come 2012, people will feel the same way. Or 2016. If he's ambassador, he's not going to take on a sitting president."