Since withdrawing from the Republican primaries in January, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has tried to stay engaged with China, where he served as Barack Obama's ambassador from 2009-2011. But China hasn't always wanted to engage with Huntsman: In an interview with Foreign Policy in mid-October in his Washington, D.C. home, Huntsman revealed that the Chinese government canceled his visa, prohibiting him from entering the country to give a talk in September. He also spoke candidly about his primary defeat, Mitt Romney's foreign policy, and the difficulty of managing the most important relationship in the world. Excerpts:
Foreign Policy: Put yourself in the shoes of the moderator at the upcoming foreign-policy debate on Oct. 22. What do you think he should ask about China?
Jon Huntsman: What are the core philosophical drivers that inform the thinking of the candidates? What are our national interests at play? How do we maximize our position in the Asia-Pacific region, understanding that China is the centerpiece geographically. And fourth, given that it is the relationship of the 21st century, how do we intend to sustain the cyclicality that is inherent in a large, complicated relationship?
FP: Let's say you and Romney were in the same room, and he were to ask you, "How should I improve my China policy? What have I been saying that I shouldn't be saying, and vice versa?"
JH: Well, far be it from me to give anybody advice. I tried that race and didn't do so well.
But I think there's one simple fact that ought to be brought out when you're talking about China, and that is that the U.S.-China relationship is only as strong as we are domestically. And I think that the best U.S.-China policy is to get back on our feet domestically, to shore up our economic fundamentals, to focus on international economics, to get our infrastructure strengthened, to improve our schools. These are all things that, [over the] long term, are going to make a stronger U.S.-China relationship. And we've got to start here -- fixing and strengthening our core. That's a message I think a lot of Americans can relate to, but the candidates don't seem to want to talk about China in the context of fixing our own house first in order to have a better relationship with China long term.
FP: What differences do you see between Romney and Obama's foreign policies?
JH: Well, they differ in some senses in the levers of power that are being pulled. I think Obama has chosen more the soft levers of power, and Romney is at least articulating some of the hard levers of power, where in reality, we need a combination of both. During campaign season, you never want to talk about anything except the hard levers of power. But we're also trying to get over 10 years of war in the Middle East that have set us back enormously economically and diplomatically, and in terms of loss of life. And that's a reality that we're not having a conversation about.
FP: Are you surprised that China hasn't become a bigger issue in the campaign?
JH: Beyond it being used as a political tool rhetorically, we've had very little talk of China at a time when we ought to be having a substantive conversation, because it is the relationship that will matter the most in the 21st century.