Said to eye White House, Jon Huntsman ends popular run as ambassador to China

Jon Huntsman, whose resignation as ambassador to China was announced Monday, has earned widespread respect among both American businessmen and Chinese officials.

Frank Polich/Reuters
US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Chinese Ambassador to the US Zhang Yesui wave to China's President Hu Jintao as his plane departs O'Hare International airport in Chicago in this Jan. 21 photo.

Jon Huntsman, whose resignation as ambassador to China was announced Monday, has earned widespread respect among both American businessmen and Chinese officials during his two years in Beijing.

The former Republican governor of Utah will be leaving his post in the next few months, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. The move will leave Mr. Huntsman free to consider a possible run for the US presidency.

Huntsman, a fluent Mandarin speaker, has been ambassador during a contentious period in US-China relations; in the past two years Beijing and Washington have clashed over currency and trade issues, territorial questions in the South China Sea, and policy toward Iran.

“He did a lot in difficult conditions to protect Sino-US relations,” says Shi Yinhong, an expert in US affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. “He helped steer the relationship through the storm, and he leaves quite a positive image.”

Respected by bicyclists, business community

The ambassador, who could sometimes be seen on weekends riding his bicycle with his family around Beijing, “earned a lot of respect from the American business community,” says Patrick Chovanec, who teaches economics at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Huntsman's family firm Huntsman Corp., a global chemicals manufacturer, has investments in China. And as a businessman himself, Huntsman “was a very effective spokesman for US interests in China,” adds Professor Chovanec.

Though unfailingly urbane and diplomatic in public, Huntsman expressed himself more bluntly in cables to the US State Department, as illustrated by WikiLeaks. In one February 2010 cable he accused the Chinese government of “muscle-flexing, triumphalism, and assertiveness.” A month earlier he had complained that Chinese investment regulations “add to the overall sense that China plays unfairly in the global marketplace.”

WikiLeaks’ revelations of these “quite realistic and hard opinions,” says Professor Shi, “were regrettable for his image among some Chinese scholars and maybe the government.”

Huntsman for president?

Although his Mormon faith is seen as a potential political liability, Huntsman is widely believed to be pondering a 2012 presidential bid against his current boss, Barack Obama. President Obama referred slyly to such a prospect during a press conference last month with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao. “I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in a Republican primary,” he said with a laugh.

Such a bid would have a historical precedent, points out Chovanec, who is a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner. In the 1964 presidential campaign, Republicans unenthusiastic about both Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller launched a write-in campaign on behalf of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a Republican serving a Democratic president as ambassador to South Vietnam.

Mr. Lodge never built a campaign organization even after winning the Republican primary in New Hampshire, and Mr. Goldwater won the nomination. “If Huntsman is better organized, the result might be different,” Chovanec speculates.

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