When Jon Huntsman, America’s man in Beijing until recently, joins the U.S. presidential race next week, he won’t be coming alone. His entry will add a China spin to the economic issues under debate by the current Republican field. That alone should make his candidacy one worth watching.
No doubt some of Huntsman’s soon-to-be rivals will attempt to make hay that his previous employer was the fellow whose Oval Office they’re hoping to occupy. But the former Utah governor would be wise to use his recent ambassadorial posting to turn the conversation to the Middle Kingdom. America’s primary economic and military rival merited only a single passing mention during the New Hampshire GOP presidential debate earlier this week. That shouldn’t happen again.
Huntsman’s overseas gigs — he was briefly ambassador to Singapore in the early 1990s — give him a unique perspective on the economic challenges and opportunities that Asia’s rise presents to America. Despite current angst about China’s growing economic might, Huntsman knows firsthand the simplicity of that view. China is a desperately poor nation — its per capita GDP is lower than Jamaica’s — that still needs to show it can innovate as well as imitate. It is not a nation of Asian supermen ready to dominate the 21st century.
Moreover, in China’s need to rebalance its economy toward more consumption, Huntsman has seen the flip side of America’s need to reorient toward more saving and less debt. (And how entrenched political interests make such rebalancing efforts difficult.) He’s already hinted at supporting cuts to defense spending and eliminating economically inefficient tax breaks — while also lowering tax rates. And Huntsman’s call for America to increase its energy efficiency echoes China’s efforts to do the same.
Huntsman is also, of course, sure to talk about his impressive record as the Beehive state’s governor. He was overwhelmingly reelected in 2008, with the nonpartisan Pew Center calling Utah one of the three best-managed in the nation. True, for now, most Americans know as much about Huntsman as they do China — not much. They would be wise to study up on both.