Jon Huntsman is expected to announce that he is running for president next week. The former Utah governor would be one of few moderates in a crowded conservative primary field but may be uniquely qualified for the highest office among the dozen or so declared contenders.
Fluent in Mandarin, the former ambassador to Singapore and China brings foreign policy experience to the Republican race at a time when the Sino-American relationship is increasingly dominating US strategy. American engagements in the Middle East and South Asia may in fact be a distraction from what should be a Pacific focus.
Huntsman says he wouldn’t have intervened in Libya — “We just can’t afford it” — and advocates a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan. “If you can’t define a winning exit strategy for the American people, where we somehow come out ahead, then we’re wasting our money and we’re wasting our strategic resources,” he told Esquire. Playing “traffic cop” to keep the country’s unruly tribal society together doesn’t serve America’s interests, he added.
At a luncheon with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger this week, the 51-year old Republican highlighted the unprecedented leadership challenge that China faces in the next couple of years. By his own estimation, some 70 percent of the top two hundred Chinese government jobs will have changed hands by the time America has elected its next president. Huntsman argues that the current generation of leadership is preoccupied with domestic tranquility and has no real designs for aggression abroad. The fact that the Chinese government spends more on internal security than it does on its military “tells you who they most fear,” he said.
China is coping with high youth unemployment and expecting a whole generation of educated middle class adolescents to flood its labor market in years to come. The county’s economic miracle of recent years has largely been driven by manufacturing but already China is losing its cheap labor advantage to smaller nations in East Asia. By the middle of the century, moreover, some four hundred million Chinese will have retired — more than America’s total projected population by that time.
There are tens of thousands of protests across China every year, not just because pollution is terrible and poverty still rampant in the nation’s huge agrarian hinterland, “rather because there is a lack of transparency, official accountability and the rule of law that make it difficult for public grievances to be effectively addressed, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth C. Economy.
The ruling Communist Party has managed to contain dissent by boasting economic growth but as Chinese real estate developer Zhang Xin explained last year, that’s not enough. “All we’re allowed to do is make money,” she complained.
China’s internal struggles may be monumental; the challenge of fixing the American economy is only slightly less daunting. From the perspective of stable Sino-American relations, it’s also essential, said Huntsman, who argued that addressing America’s debt crisis would help improve ties with a major creditor nation that’s questioning America’s economic strength — and thus its strength in general.
The “biggest hole” in the relationship, he believes, is that senior military leaders seldom meet. In May, a ministerial summit of American and Chinese government officials agreed to improve military to military cooperation with regular security meetings among senior officers but mistrust lingers in military circles. Huntsman said he would address that.
The Mormon’s statesmanship aside, he may fail to secure his party’s nomination because of his moderate positions on climate change and gay marriage. Huntsman opposes abortion and supports gun rights but is far from socially conservative. His once support for a cap-and-trade system and civil unions are unlikely to appeal to the evangelical base of the Republican Party.
He did leave office as governor with an 80 percent approval rating and having vastly improved Utah’s business climate. The southwestern state was named the best managed in the union during his tenure and ranked among the top three to do business in. Voters consistently mention runaway federal spending and unemployment as the topics they most care about this election cycle. Huntsman’s record as a tax cutter and job creator should serve him well.