By Edwin Chen and Susan Decker
May 17, 2009

May 17 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama nominated Utah’s Republican Governor Jon Huntsman to be U.S. ambassador to China, the world’s most populous country and the biggest foreign owner of U.S. debt.

The selection follows through on Obama’s pledge to seek bipartisan cooperation. Huntsman, 49, has served in Republican administrations and was co-chairman of Senator John McCain’s losing presidential campaign against Democrat Obama last fall.

Obama plans to visit China this year after a meeting with President Hu Jintao in London last month, when the two men pledged to step up dialogue and have regular talks. China is the fastest-growing major economy in the world, holds $767.9 billion in U.S. Treasury securities, and is America’s biggest trading partner behind Canada.

“There is much to be gained from a closer working relationship with China,” Obama said yesterday at the White House. “But improved relations with China will require candor, and open discussion about issues where we don’t agree, such as human rights, democracy and free speech, and will require that each of our nations play by the rules in open and honest competition.”

China had a record $266 billion trade surplus with the U.S. last year, prompting accusations from some U.S. unions and companies that it undervalues its currency to promote exports. Last month, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner refrained from labeling China a manipulator of the yuan’s exchange rate, backtracking from an assertion he made during his confirmation hearings in January.

Energy, Climate Change

Obama said Huntsman will need to deal with China on issues including public health, climate change, violent extremism and efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear program.

“This is a very important relationship and I think that Jon Huntsman is about as good a nominee as one could ask for,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, senior director for Asia on the National Security Council for Democratic President Bill Clinton and now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Huntsman was ambassador to Singapore under former President George H.W. Bush and served as deputy U.S. trade representative under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

He speaks Mandarin Chinese, the language used by government officials and some 70 percent of Chinese people. Huntsman learned it while a Mormon missionary living in Taiwan.

“China keys in to really major issues” including the trade deficit, loss of manufacturing jobs and energy issues, Lieberthal said. “Having a prominent Republican politician as ambassador will increase the credibility and authority of the administration’s policy with the Republicans on the Hill.”

Bipartisan Stamp

The appointment extends Obama’s efforts to put a bipartisan stamp on his administration. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is also a Republican, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a holdover from the Bush administration. Obama’s attempt to tap New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg to head the Commerce Department foundered when Gregg withdrew, citing philosophical differences with the Democratic administration.

Huntsman’s nomination is subject to approval by the Senate, and Republicans and Democrats alike expressed support.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, made calls to senior administration officials on behalf of Huntsman’s nomination, said his spokesman Jim Manley. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch said Huntsman’s qualifications are “tailor-made for this important position on the world stage.”

McCain thinks Huntsman “is a great choice,” the Arizona Republican’s spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, said.

Progressing Together

Huntsman, who appeared at the White House with Obama yesterday, called China the “most important strategic bilateral relationship” for the U.S. He cited a Chinese aphorism “Together we work, together we progress,” first saying it in Chinese.

China has a “crucial role in confronting all the major challenges that face Asia and the world in the years ahead,” Obama said.

Huntsman, who has an adopted daughter from China as well as one from India, focused in Utah on improving public education, the state’s economic competitiveness and cleaning up the environment. His father, Jon Meade Huntsman Sr., is the founder of the Salt Lake City-based chemical company Huntsman Corp.

Even as he ran for re-election as governor, Huntsman campaigned across the country for McCain, and emerged as a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. In February, Huntsman angered members of his own party by saying he supports civil unions for homosexuals.

Huntsman has a bachelor’s degree in international politics from the University of Pennsylvania and served as a White House staff assistant to Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Tariffs, Currency

Congress is considering legislation to pressure China to raise the value of its currency by threatening to increase tariffs on imports. Obama had signed on as a co-sponsor of a similar proposal last year when he was in the Senate.

The U.S. trade representative last month listed China and Russia as the world’s worst offenders when it comes to protecting copyrights. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Chinese officials have threatened to ease any clampdown on sellers of pirated movies, music, books and software because of the worldwide financial crisis and a desire to boost employment.

To contact the reporters on this story: Edwin Chen in Washington at [email protected] Decker in Washington at [email protected]
Last Updated: May 17, 2009 00:00 EDT