Bush Sr. and Huntsman: A Tale of Two Ambassadors to the Middle Kingdom

Huntsman ChinaIt may seem odd at first to associate Jon M. Huntsman with George H. W. Bush. Bush Sr. is an Episcopalian while Huntsman is Mormon; Bush served in the military during World War II while Huntsman went on a religious mission long after the war; and the list goes on and on.

However, a close look at the personal and career paths of the two suggests several convergences, and the nexus is the Middle Kingdom.

On June 21, Huntsman officially announced that he would run for the GOP nomination. He is the second former U.S. ambassador to the PRC to make such a vow. As with his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, his Mormon faith has been kept off the table in several public discourses. Instead, what comes into the public light is his international profile, which features substantial experience in the Confucian sphere, including his roles as a Mormon missionary to Taiwan and as the former U.S. ambassador to the PRC. Like Bush Sr., Huntsman could indeed, as president, make an important contribution to Sino-American relations.

The China Connection

In 1974, Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, appointed Bush Sr. as the chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China. At a time when official relations between the two countries were yet to be established, Bush Sr. unofficially acted in the capacity of an ambassador. His charisma, open-mindedness, and curiosity served him well as a diplomat, and he was widely loved in China. During his fourteen months in Beijing, Bush Sr. sought every opportunity possible to get to know the lives of the Chinese public. He and his wife, Barbara would tour around Beijing on their bicycles, the most popular means of everyday transportation in the 1970s. Although regulations at the time limited his access to local Chinese families, he would go to grocery stores and talk to the salespeople. He would also try to get to know the people that he met while walking his dog.

HW Bush ChinaDespite congressional and public criticism of his conciliatory approach to dealing with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, Bush Sr. managed to use his China experience to his advantage, and perhaps, to the advantage of the United States. Indeed, his efforts as president to maintain contacts with Beijing can perhaps only be appreciated in hindsight. During his presidential years, Bush Sr. famously served as “his own China Desk Officer,” that is, his own resident expert on the multi-faceted aspects of China and Sino-American relations. His previous experience dealing with the CCP officials effectively established a realist framework for relations between the United States and China, a defining feat in the foreign relations of the 1990s for both sides.

Compared to Bush Sr., Huntsman began to have contact with the Confucian sphere at an earlier stage of his life. Still a college student, Huntsman served as a Mormon missionary to Taiwan. During his two-year mission there, he not only immersed himself in the social and cultural dynamics of Taiwan but also obtained fluency in Mandarin Chinese and Hokkien, a regional dialect of Fujian Province.

Huntsman’s experience with China and Taiwan and his proficiency in Mandarin Chinese proved to be an asset when President Obama appointed him the ninth U.S. ambassador to the PRC. Kenneth Lieberthal, Director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution, once expressed that “in terms of knowledge and diplomatic skills, I’d regard him as one of the best ambassadors we had. I thought he was very good. He related effectively to Chinese audiences.” Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, told the press that Huntsman was well-liked by the embassy staff. Schell added that Huntsman “is a very smart guy, quick on his feet, and he has a certain candor.”

Will or Should History Repeat?

Like his predecessor Bush Sr., Huntsman is now running for GOP nomination. It is not surprising to any U.S. presidential campaign watcher that clouds of suspicions surround Huntsman’s candidacy, centering on his ability and willingness to place public interests before corporate interests, given his background as a billionaire businessman. There are also his politically expedient actions to consider. To some degree, Huntsman seems to be reinventing his image to cater to Republican voters. These efforts are characterized by his reversal of positions on several key issues of interest to the Republican voters, including his stance on health reform and the Recovery Act. In addition, he was a Democratic appointee as ambassador to the PRC, which may undermine his ideological loyalty to the GOP.

On the other hand, Huntsman has taken perhaps the strongest stance among the Republican candidates on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, which reveals something provocative about his foreign policy in general. His press release on the president’s remarks last week highlighted his approval for “a safe but rapid withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In addition to maintaining that there is a great need for “nation building at home,” which is in line with Obama’s vision for U.S. foreign policy, Huntsman went further to say that it is time to “get serious about what needs to be done on the ground, not a counter-insurgency but a counter-terror effort.

The globally minded Huntsman appears to be committed to effective U.S. engagement with the world. As an old China hand, his expertise on China and Sino-American relations is invaluable, considering that China may become the most crucial partner to the United States in the 21st century. Furthermore, he is likely to be less conciliatory and controversial on China’s poor human rights profile than Bush Sr., given his blunt criticism of the CCP’s detention of prominent Chinese activists like Liu Xiaobo.

At the moment, Huntsman is leaning to the right in order to appeal to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Perhaps if his campaign gains traction, however, his views on foreign policy, and on China in particular, might begin to make the Republican Party lean more in his direction.

Shiran Shen is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and a senior honors political science student at Swarthmore College.