Washington » Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. promised to be "a hard-headed realist" if confirmed as the next ambassador to China, pushing for more trade equality, military transparency and a pact to combat climate change.
He also said he would confront the emerging superpower on human rights abuses.
"It's in everyone's interest in the world to ensure we have a good stable, positive, constructive, comprehensive bilateral relationship," Huntsman said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But I'm also a hard-headed realist about what it is going to take to manage this relationship."
Huntsman headlined a confirmation hearing that included four other ambassador-designees. As expected, the few senators who attended asked him some substantive policy questions but none expressed any doubt about his qualifications.
"I'm confident he will do an exceptional job representing our country at this pivotal moment in U.S.-China relations," said Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The panel is expected to vote on Huntsman's nomination early next week and the Senate will likely follow suit shortly thereafter. Huntsman hopes to move to Beijing by mid August.
At Thursday's hearing, Huntsman was joined by his father, his wife Mary Kaye and six of his seven children. Asha, his youngest daughter whom he adopted from India, did not attend because Huntsman worried she might make too much noise.
Photographers seemed enthralled with Gracie Mei, his other adopted daughter who is from China. Wearing a red traditional Chinese dress, she sat through the one and half hour hearing perched on the leg of Jon Huntsman Sr.
The governor was introduced by Arizona Sen. John McCain and Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, all of whom touted his management of Utah and his knowledge of Chinese history, traditions and politics.
"I believe I speak for all Utahns when I say Governor Huntsman will be missed, but we all know he is the appropriate person for this job," Hatch said.
Just last November, Huntsman was reelected by the largest margin of any governor in Utah's history. During the campaign, he promised to serve out his term, but said he couldn't turn down the president's request to serve.
If confirmed, Huntsman will resign the governorship and Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert will become Utah's 17th chief executive.
Obama tapped Huntsman back in mid-May. So far, he has been the only ambassador designee who was introduced in a highly publicized White House event, signaling not only the importance he places on relations with China, but also his desire to include Republicans in his administration.
Huntsman was a former co-chairman of McCain's failed 2008 presidential bid and many political observers put him on the short list of Republican candidates in 2012.
Kerry said Huntsman's appointment "honors our best traditions of bipartisan foreign policy making."
Both Huntsman and Obama have touted the worldwide impact of a China-U.S. alliance.
In announcing Huntsman's nomination, Obama said: "I can think of no more important assignment than creating the kinds of bridges between our two countries that will determine the well-being, not just of Americans and Chinese, but also the future of the world."
Because of the size and collective power of the United States and China, Huntsman said these two nations must take the lead on issues such as climate change.
"If, together, they can't address this issue in a sensible and thoughtful fashion, no one else is going to do it for us," Huntsman said.
But his interest goes beyond environmental concerns, Huntsman told the panel he sees climate change as an economic prospect. The two countries are racing to take the lead in developing the latest clean-energy technologies.
"I know what a market opportunity this is going to be for us," Huntsman said.
The ambassador-designee said the two countries must also work in tandem to repair the global economy and keep peace in the region, with particular focus given to North Korea.
He said building trust on a military level will also be key, leading to "a better understanding of intentions of budgetary priorities."
One of the challenges Huntsman would face is balancing the nation's goals in trade, climate change and other issues, with its desire to foster human rights.
He promised not to back away from the diplomatically sensitive issue, including the recent clash with ethnic Uighurs that left nearly 200 dead and hundreds more injured.
"The promotion of human rights is an essential element of American global foreign policy and, if confirmed, I look forward to robust engagement with China on human rights," he said, promising not only to express concerns about individual cases but also to push for bigger ways to support citizen-driven efforts.
Huntsman said he wanted to "regularize" how America talks to China about human rights, religious freedom and the rule of law, "so it isn't a once per year discussion where the talking points were pulled out."
He also said he would like to return to Congress and report on his progress.
With this assignment, Huntsman will have worked for four presidents, but this will be his first experience in a Democratic administration. He accompanied Ronald Reagan on a trip to China as a staff assistant. He served as ambassador to Singapore for George H.W. Bush and deputy U.S. trade representative under George W. Bush.
The Senate confirmed him on a voice vote for both the ambassadorship and the trade representative post.
Huntsman's love for Chinese culture and his understanding of Asian relations began when he served his Mormon mission in Taiwan from 1979 to 1981, during which he learned to speak Mandarin Chinese. Before becoming the ambassador to Singapore, he worked as the deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for East Asia. While at the Commerce Department, he participated in protests over the Chinese government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
As governor of Utah, Huntsman also spoke out in favor of Tibetan independence, backing protests in San Francisco that threatened to block the Olympic torch as it made its way to the Beijing Games last year.
"President Obama made a wise decision in selecting Governor Huntsman for this post, and because of that, Utah will lose a great leader."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah
"Governor Huntsman's selection is a great sign that the U.S. -China relationship is above politics."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
"He has already made his mark as a leader and as a statesman, and I think Americans are fortunate that he has agreed to reenter the service of our nation."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"It was a great privilege and a great honor to see Jon Junior articulate clearly and decisively on his views on Utah and on China. I'm very very proud of him."
Jon Huntsman Sr., industrialist and philanthropist
"I am honored to have been selected by President Obama as his candidate to represent the United States and American values in China. If confirmed, I will do all in my power to promote U.S. interests faithfully while working to further strengthen our ties with this complex and important country."
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
C-SPAN video of the hearing can be accessed on line: