The likely appointment of Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman as the next US ambassador to China is an intriguing development, and certainly welcome as far as Taiwan is concerned.
Amid increasingly aggressive comments by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Pyongyang’s brinkmanship, Huntsman’s emergence as the probable next envoy to China sends another signal that the US is beginning to reassert itself and make up for a period of Asia policy neglect that emboldened not only North Korea and Myanmar but also Chinese militarism.
President Barack Obama’s nomination of Huntsman is part of a growing number of strategic job offers to Republican politicians and conservatives. Democrats in certain quarters may be feeling a little irritated at the scope of Obama’s attempt to engage with his political foes, but those with genuine concerns about China’s recalcitrance on issues ranging from defense and currency manipulation to human rights and regional security will welcome Huntsman’s appointment.
Democrats were also a lot less likely to subject Huntsman to the silly grilling that Republicans have opted for in the case of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Such bilateral support for Huntsman amounts to another signal to Beijing that his likely appointment cannot be interpreted along factional or partisan lines but as a clear statement of intent by Washington to deal with China in a more vigorous fashion.
For people in Taiwan who support a democratic state anchored in principles of self-determination, the importance of the issue should not be overstated. It is up to the pro-independence side of politics to continue communicating with the Americans through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and through channels in the US.
This is especially important now that AIT Director Stephen Young is ending his term. It is essential that his replacement receive a more professional and cordial reception than awaited Douglas Paal, whose poor relationship with the then-Democratic Progressive Party government represented a modern-day nadir in Taiwan-US relations.
The pro-China administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), however, may feel a little uneasy at the thought of Huntsman, a former Taiwan-based Mormon evangelist, being “personally invested in the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences, in a way that respects the wishes of the people on both Taiwan and the mainland,” as he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday.
Huntsman will be all too aware of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) grim past, and his background as a politician and his personal characteristics point to a straight shooter, a man willing to live up to his promise of delivering a “hard-headed realist” approach to US-China ties.
It is to be hoped that, notwithstanding the inevitable softening of language that comes with diplomatic postings, Huntsman will be prepared to make a candid assessment on cross-strait pacts between the Communists and the KMT government that are potentially injurious to Taiwanese.