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Huntsman says 'stakes are too high' to let relationship fail
Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and US ambassador to China, believes the best way to advance US-China ties is to rise above the "noise", humanize the relationship and recognize that the relationship is no longer simply bilateral, but global.
Huntsman made the statement in New York on Wednesday at a meeting hosted by the National Committee on US-China Relations. Many in the audience were top China hands in the US.
Huntsman referred to the turbulence in the relationship caused by thorny issues such as arms sales to Taiwan and meetings with the Dalai Lama. "The best we can hope for is to be frank and be upfront about what it is we stand for, be upfront about what our interests are and recognize that we are going to have some separations on some of the issues," he said.
"The relationship is no longer simply a bilateral relationship, it's a global one," he said, adding that it has been hard for many to recognize that.
The bilateral yet global relationship Huntsman talked about covers a host of issues, such as rebalancing the world economy, the eurozone crisis, the Korean Peninsula, Iran and the environment. He went further to describe the US-China tie as "the only relationship in the world that matters in the 21st century".
He said part of the problem in US-China relations is the sheer noise level, with many competing priorities from various people. "As ambassador, one job is how you strip the noise away from the relationship and put on the table the priorities that really matter to both sides," said Huntsman, who was a candidate for the Republican nomination for the US presidency until mid-January this year.
Huntsman lamented the fact that not many US politicians were willing to invest their time in the relationship. His insights seemed less popular among members of the audience when he debated other mostly China-bashing candidates.
"Right now, a lot of folks in the US don't see the value in forming a stronger US-China relationship. So politicians get away with bashing and using stereotypes in their town hall meetings and speeches," he said.
"But we also have a relationship that we must make work. We have no choice. It's important for people in both countries. It's important for the region and it's increasingly important for the world," he said.
"We cannot let it fail. The stakes are way too high," he said repeatedly.
Huntsman said one of the jobs that could be done is to step up and humanize the US-China relationship because that's the only way to get the attention of Congress in the longer term.
He cited two concrete examples when he was Utah governor from 2005 to 2009. One was to be an advocate for closer ties and the introduction of Mandarin study to the school system. "We had more Mandarin-speaking students than any other US state at one time," he declared.
"Because young kids, when they are introduced to a language, particularly a strategic language in the 21st century, their minds are going to be open not just to language, but culture as well. It will be a prism through which they can understand the other side of the world," Huntsman said.
He said those parents lining outside the classroom to get their kids to Chinese class also knew that their kids will be stepping onto a much different world stage from what they understood in their lifetime.
The other example Huntsman cited was the changing attitude when Utah and other western US states started to export alfalfa hay to China. "Just in my state, all of a sudden, China becomes less a threat, and more of a customer," he said.
"We have to make the relationship relevant in the lives of people at all levels of society because of trade and education prospects," he said.
"When you humanize the relationship, then the politicians get involved because they are going to follow the people," Huntsman said.
While many are worried about the harsh tone toward China of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Huntsman, who endorsed Romney, told China Daily after the meeting that he was not sure if Romney has fully articulated his China policy.
"In elections you have to give it time before all of the policies are properly introduced and we're still many months away," he said, implying that Romney's China policy is going to be more practical than his early campaign rhetoric.
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