Sun, May 17, 2009
World > Americas

Obama taps potential rival for China envoy

2009-05-17 09:24:34 GMT2009-05-17 17:24:34 (Beijing Time)

US President Barack Obama on Saturday named the Republican governor of Utah Jon Huntsman to be the next US ambassador to China.

Jon Huntsman Jr., 49, a Mandarin-speaking former US trade official with deep personal and family business ties to China, takes on a delicate diplomatic role with a vital trading partner and one of the biggest sources of financing for the growing pile of US government debt.

"This ambassadorship is as important as any in the world because the United States will best be able to deal effectively with the global challenges of the 21st century by working in concert with China," Obama said at a White House ceremony with Huntsman at his side.

Huntsman is the son of billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman, and his family founded chemical company Huntsman Corp, which has operations in China, including a factory in Shanghai. One of Huntsman's seven children, daughter Gracie Mei, was adopted from China.

Huntsman quoted a Chinese aphorism as he accepted the nomination on Saturday, which he translated as, "Together we work, together we progress."

"This more than anything else, I think, captures the spirit of our journey going forward," he said.

In a 2006 speech at Shanghai Normal University, Huntsman urged bilateral cooperation to foster peace and economic prosperity on both sides of the Pacific but also had some stern words about how environmental damage in Asia hurt wildlife in his home state of Utah.

A senior administration official said Huntsman was seen as a problem-solver rather than a dogmatist, and called him a "'no drama Obama' type" who was fluent in the language and culture and well versed in critical issues affecting the region.

Obama called Huntsman to offer him the post on May 5, and he accepted. The two met in the Oval Office one week ago, while the governor was in Washington for the annual White House Correspondents dinner.

Trade Frictions

Eswar Prasad, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and previously head of the China division at the International Monetary Fund, said Huntsman's diplomatic skills "will be tested to the limit as there are many potential sources of conflict between China and the US, especially on trade, currency and environmental policies."

"Once the world economy stabilizes and the worst of the (financial) crisis is behind us, these simmering tensions will come bubbling back to the surface," he added.

The US trade deficit with China hit a record $266.3 billion in 2008, but both countries are feeling the pinch now because the global recession has clobbered world trade.

Huntsman served as deputy US trade representative in the Bush administration from 2001-2004, and was US ambassador to Singapore from 1992 to 1994 when Bush's father was president.

China is among the largest buyers of US government debt, with $767.9 billion as of March, according to Treasury Department data released on Friday.

Washington is keen to maintain a strong relationship -- particularly now as the $787 billion stimulus package and $700 billion financial bailout fund have strained public finances.

If China pulled back on its purchases of US bonds, it could drive up interest rates, making it more expensive for the US government to finance its growing debt pile and for consumers and companies to borrow money.

Obama's choice of a Republican for such a key post could signal that the Democratic president has not abandoned his pledge to seek bipartisan cooperation. Since taking office in January, he has mostly relied on a Democratic majority in Congress to push through his legislation.

The ambassador post requires Senate confirmation.

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