Huntsman Speaks Out

Republican primary contender Jon Huntsman sounds off on the U.S. presidential race -- and the big issue the candidates aren't talking about.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Since withdrawing from the Republican primaries in January, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has tried to stay engaged with China, where he served as Barack Obama’s ambassador from 2009-2011. But China hasn’t always wanted to engage with Huntsman: In an interview with Foreign Policy in mid-October in his Washington, D.C. home, Huntsman revealed that the Chinese government canceled his visa, prohibiting him from entering the country to give a talk in September. He also spoke candidly about his primary defeat, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, and the difficulty of managing the most important relationship in the world. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: Put yourself in the shoes of the moderator at the upcoming foreign-policy debate on Oct. 22. What do you think he should ask about China?

Jon Huntsman: What are the core philosophical drivers that inform the thinking of the candidates? What are our national interests at play? How do we maximize our position in the Asia-Pacific region, understanding that China is the centerpiece geographically. And fourth, given that it is the relationship of the 21st century, how do we intend to sustain the cyclicality that is inherent in a large, complicated relationship?

FP: Let’s say you and Romney were in the same room, and he were to ask you, "How should I improve my China policy? What have I been saying that I shouldn’t be saying, and vice versa?"

JH: Well, far be it from me to give anybody advice. I tried that race and didn’t do so well.

But I think there’s one simple fact that ought to be brought out when you’re talking about China, and that is that the U.S.-China relationship is only as strong as we are domestically. And I think that the best U.S.-China policy is to get back on our feet domestically, to shore up our economic fundamentals, to focus on international economics, to get our infrastructure strengthened, to improve our schools. These are all things that, [over the] long term, are going to make a stronger U.S.-China relationship. And we’ve got to start here — fixing and strengthening our core. That’s a message I think a lot of Americans can relate to, but the candidates don’t seem to want to talk about China in the context of fixing our own house first in order to have a better relationship with China long term.

FP: What differences do you see between Romney and Obama’s foreign policies?

JH: Well, they differ in some senses in the levers of power that are being pulled. I think Obama has chosen more the soft levers of power, and Romney is at least articulating some of the hard levers of power, where in reality, we need a combination of both. During campaign season, you never want to talk about anything except the hard levers of power. But we’re also trying to get over 10 years of war in the Middle East that have set us back enormously economically and diplomatically, and in terms of loss of life.  And that’s a reality that we’re not having a conversation about.

FP: Are you surprised that China hasn’t become a bigger issue in the campaign?

JH: Beyond it being used as a political tool rhetorically, we’ve had very little talk of China at a time when we ought to be having a substantive conversation, because it is the relationship that will matter the most in the 21st century.

FP: What’s your understanding of what Chinese officials think about all this rhetoric and what’s behind it? Do they see this as one of the downsides of democracy, or of Americans playing into the fears of American decline?

JH: I think it’s happened for so long that they’ve grown to expect it during the election season. I think it affected them more in the earlier years, but now they’ve grown accustomed to the political cycle, just as we’ve grown accustomed to the leadership cycles in China, where they do the same thing to us. We just have a bigger megaphone. And they tend to be a little more sensitive, because face still matters a whole lot in terms of human interaction.

FP: So, you don’t think the responses we’ve seen in Chinese state media outlets like People’s Daily and Xinhua don’t really mean anything; it’s just low-level bluster?

JH: Oh, it always means something, but you have to put it in perspective. I was supposed to be there a month ago giving a speech, but they canceled my visa. Why? Because I talk too much about human rights and American values, and they know that. And at a time of leadership realignment, the biggest deal in 10 years for them, they didn’t want the former U.S. ambassador saying stuff that might create a narrative that they would have to fight. I understand that. But when the transition is done, the crazy American ambassador will be let back in, and I can say whatever I want. As they used to tell me when I was over there was "Women zhongguo ye you zhengzhi"—"We have politics too in China."

FP: So they ended up letting you back in this time?

JH: They did, because I wasn’t over there for a speech; I was there for a board meeting.

FP: How did they communicate that to you, that they had canceled your visa? It was just not approved?

JH: Well, the group that was bringing me in to speak, the organizers — they had a little pressure put on them, shall we say.

FP: Subtle?

JH: Oh, I think it was pretty overt pressure.

FP: Do you think your expertise on China and your Mandarin-speaking hurt your campaign? Do you think your message was too — I don’t want to use the word "intelligent," but do you think your ability to speak on issues like China at that level was not the way to communicate?

JH: Well, to be sure, I was an imperfect messenger, so I only have myself to blame. But here’s the context. You’re coming out of the most compartmented, sensitive, confined relationship probably in the U.S. government, where a lot of your work is being done behind closed doors. A lot of it is stuff that no one will ever read about, and then you jump on to what is probably the most public stage in the world: that of running for the president of the United States. So the mental gymnastics that go from one job to the other — it takes a little bit of settling in.

Update: Huntsman’s office, after the interview was published, provided this clarification:

"The governor’s invitation to speak, not his visa, was rescinded for political reasons. The governor misspoke in the interview, citing a canceled visa when he meant to say cancelled invitation."


Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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