Ambassador Jon Huntsman has been the U.S. envoy to China for barely four months, but he has already confronted a daunting agenda: a presidential summit, fraught climate talks in Copenhagen, a confusing mix of setbacks and progress on human rights, and growing pressure on China to do more to defuse nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea. Huntsman comes to the job with an unusual resume; he speaks impressive Mandarin and he dispenses it with the same folksy openness that made him a popular governor of Utah—popular enough that then-candidate Obama’s campaign manager once said that Huntsman was the only Republican capable of making him feel “a wee bit queasy” about a possible 2012 challenge. (Huntsman probably took himself out of the running by accepting the China post, a job he has wanted for years, but nobody is ruling out talk of 2016.)
I recently posed some questions to Huntsman, and his comments confirmed my sense that he and China policymakers in Washington have decided to put more of the U.S.-China relationship behind closed doors, instead of relying on traditional pronouncements calling on China to do more on issues from human rights to currency valuation—even though that strategy risks attracting criticism that the Administration is not doing enough. As Huntsman put it, “keeping our discussions private can give our interlocutors greater flexibility”—and the Administration is betting that this benefits the U.S.