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Washington • Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman describes himself as a champion for U.S. exports during his 18 months as the nation's ambassador to China, saying the growth helped create jobs here at home.
The numbers back up his point and the White House calls Huntsman an "effective" team player, a point with which many observers of U.S.-China relations agree.
Things started to unravel a bit toward the end of his tour, though, particularly when news started trickling out that Huntsman might be eyeing a presidential bid himself, says one senior administration official.
The starkest example was when Huntsman and a few family members showed up at an antigovernment protest in a Beijing shopping district a moment in late February that was captured on videotape and one that caught the White House and State Department by surprise.
"There wasn't a split. We certainly shared all the views of the situations, right. We didn't know he was going to do certain things. So I think in some instances, particularly toward the end, we weren't aware that he was going to attend a rally. Would have been good to know that and coordinate it," said the official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
Overall, though, the official described Huntsman as effective and said he "worked really well as part of a team."
"Toward the end, I think particularly as he was clearly beginning to explore other plans, that began to fray in some respects, which is, I think, somewhat to be expected," he added.
Experts on the U.S.-China relationship laud Huntsman for what he did during his tenure, which lasted from August 2009 through April 30 of this year, but also note that it may not have been there long enough to make any lasting impact.
"Ambassador Huntsman was an effective advocate for U.S. policy in China, on trade and investment concerns as well as on broader political issues such as Internet freedom and human rights," says Elizabeth Economy, the director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I only wish he would have stayed for three or four years rather than 18 months, so that he could have fulfilled what I think was his potential to be one of the truly great U.S. ambassadors to China."
Huntsman says his top mission in China was to expand the marketplace for U.S. exports, noting that more sales to the nation would mean more jobs at home in America.
"It was whatever we could do to promote job creation here in the United States," Huntsman said in an interview. "That was obviously first and foremost in our minds."
Beyond that, Huntsman says there were three other goals that he worked toward while ambassador: expanding the diplomacy effort; finding shared interests between the U.S. and China that could boost cooperation; and advancing the U.S.-China relationship to take on global issues, such as working on curbing weapons programs in Iran and North Korea.
Huntsman was known to step out of China's capital city and travel to provinces where ambassadors often roam. He also made the rounds at Chinese universities and tapped into social media tools to reach more than just the Communist Party brass.
Traditionally, Huntsman says, the U.S.-China relationship has been strictly bilateral, but "we've fundamentally entered a new era" where the United States needs China's help with Iran or on the Korean peninsula or pursuing clean-energy opportunities.
"These are all things with global implications that really require a bigger view of the traditional bilateral relationship," Huntsman says. "I think that we've got that aspect off to a good start as well."
To back up his record, Huntsman can point to praise he received as he was leaving his post by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is the presumed heir to take over as the nation's top leader. He called Huntsman "an old friend of the Chinese people" who had made "unremitting efforts to promote the exchanges between our two people."
"Let me express our appreciation for your contributions," Xi said, according to an Associated Press dispatch from Beijing. "We will never forget what you have done."
The only true measurable accomplishment Huntsman cites is an increase in U.S. exports to China, and the numbers back him up. At the time Huntsman started as ambassador, the third quarter of 2009, the United States shipped about 24 million units to the country.
In the first quarter of this year, units shipped had jumped to nearly 36 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Jack Perkowski, a prominent Beijing-based American businessman sometimes referred to as "Mr. China" for his expertise in the area, says some of that growth could be attributed to a weakened Chinese currency, but noted that the ambassador and his embassy can be helpful to U.S. businesses on large purchases and contracts.
"It's very difficult to say how much of that growth occurred due to his efforts, and how much would have occurred anyway due to general economic conditions," Perkowski said.
Apart from the increase in U.S.-to-China exports, Perkowski says U.S. businesses haven't seen much of a change in recent years, "so I don't believe that any ambassador can claim to have improved the climate measurably."
In terms of expanding the U.S. diplomatic efforts in China, Perkowski adds that even business executives who spend four years in the country often say they're only beginning to make inroads.
"It is very difficult to accomplish anything in China in 18 months," Perkowski says. "Developing the relationships and building the level of trust needed to make measurable change takes a much, much longer period of time."
Huntsman does have some big fans of his time in China, though.
David Shambaugh, the director of the China Policy Program and the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, lived in Beijing for much of Huntsman's tour in the country and says that Huntsman was "particularly effective."
"As ambassador he not only represented the United States with great sophistication and style, but he also steadfastly defended American national interests with the Chinese government whether over trade issues, human rights, security matters and diplomatic issues," Shambaugh said. "I have personally known and witnessed every American ambassador to China for the past three decades, and Jon Huntsman ranks near the very top in my estimation."