Don't Fear China, Collaborate, Huntsman Says

The U.S.-China relationship is between the two biggest actors on the world stage today, “a marriage where divorce is not an option,” Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Monday night during a talk in Page Auditorium at Duke University.

 A Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecturer, a former ambassador to China and twice-elected Republican governor of Utah discussed his views on foreign policy and the current political climate with Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy. The United States should not fear China’s strength, but rather “a lack of engagement” between two countries with such different histories and world views. If they become estranged, it could lead to “a new Cold War,” he said. “That’s the danger I fear most.”

Gov. Huntsman at Duke University

The United States is entering a new period with fewer resources and leverage in international affairs. The future is not in Afghanistan or Iraq, but in China. With a population of 1.3 billion people, the economy of the world’s most populous nation will surpass America’s at some point, he said. 

The United States should have gotten out of Afghanistan already and is paying too high a price both in casualties and cost, Huntsman said. After 9/11, the goals were to get in, rout out the Taliban and stabilize the government.  While governor of Utah, he traveled to Kabul, and the trip took a personal turn when a National Guardsman from Utah was killed the day Huntsman arrived and he was asked to speak at his memorial service. America has accomplished its basic mission there, and any long-term solution requires action from the regional powers India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China, which shares a tiny bit of border with Afghanistan.

Huntsman was serving his second term as governor when President Obama asked him to serve as ambassador to China.  A long-time Republican who served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, he “hadn’t expected the offer, but being in public service means you put country first, so I couldn’t turn it down,” he said. Huntsman is fluent in Mandarin and adopted a daughter while living in China. He acknowledged that his decision to cross party lines cost him politically during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Huntsman said his moderate stance as a GOP presidential candidate was  unpopular. He said he chose to run because of three deficits he sees in the country.  First is the fiscal deficit. Second is the lack of trust in elected officials, which is at an all-time low. The solution to the trust deficit is to get rid of the Super PACs, which he said are “destroying our democracy”, and to open up primaries so that a tiny sliver of people in Iowa don’t pick the nominee.  The third is a confidence deficit caused by the body blows of 9/11 and the Great Recession.

Huntsman sees brighter possibilities ahead, in the use of natural gas to transition from an oil-based energy system, breakthroughs in medicine through genomics and the transformation of democratic participation through the Internet.

He has seen a change in Chinese leadership since his first visits as a member of the Reagan administration, when the officials were “Mao-suited bureaucrats with no education” to today’s ministers, who “wear suits and speak English.” They have a great sense of pragmatism about their economy, including one minister who told him, “We are now less socialist than Europe.”

There are still many sensitive areas and conflicting values between two countries. Huntsman told about visiting a human rights activist held under house arrest at the edge of Beijing.  When he walked into the room, “she teared up, because the U.S. had arrived.”

In the area of intellectual property rights, China is moving toward the U.S. position.  Pirated software, books and movies in China are a huge problem, but now that China has its own entrepreneurs, the policy is changing.  “The best leverage is their own people,” he said, who now have their own property that needs protection.

There are many converging interests between the two countries, such as the global economy, environment, and peace and security. Huntsman said his mantra as ambassador was an old proverb, which he recited in Mandarin and then translated, “Together we learn, together we study, together we progress.”

Huntsman will return to Duke for part two of his Sanford Lecture on Oct. 30 in the Fleishman Commons at the Sanford School of Public Policy. He will focus more on domestic issues then.

A complete video of this talk is available at