China envoy a challenger to Obama?

Jon Huntsman arrives at the White House for a state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao on 19 Jan 2011 Is Mandarin-speaker Jon Huntsman poised for a run at the presidency?

As President, Barack Obama has spent quite a bit of time dealing with the challenge from a rising China. Just last week he was warning about it in his State of the Union address.

Now, though, he may be facing what could arguably be his trickiest China challenge yet, from none other than his own ambassador.

The White House has confirmed that, in a highly unusual move, Jon Huntsman is resigning less than 18 months after he was sent to China.

The speculation that's been doing the rounds for some time in Beijing's diplomatic and media circles is that Mr Huntsman is eyeing a possible bid for the White House in 2012.

So he's in the awkward position of already being talked about as a rival for his boss's job.

'One final run'

Mr Obama probably hoped that he had dealt with this particular threat long ago, on 21 August 2009 to be precise.

That was the day Jon Huntsman, a rising Republican political star, arrived in Beijing to take up his post as US ambassador. On the same day, White House records show, Mr Obama was heading for the presidential retreat at Camp David.

About Damian Grammaticas

I'm the BBC's China correspondent. This is where I will share my thoughts on life in this rapidly changing economic giant

The commentators were saying that dispatching Jon Huntsman to the other side of the world was a shrewd move by President Obama, sidelining a formidable political rival. You'd be forgiven for imagining Mr Obama reclining into his seat on Marine One, lifting off from the White House lawn, breathing a small sigh of satisfaction.

Not so fast. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr Huntsman would "leave sometime in the first part of the year", but he said "nobody knows what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman".

At the embassy too they are being equally coy. But few ambassadors leave after less than a year and a half in post unless something is afoot.

Mr Huntsman's recent actions have fuelled the speculation. Late last year he was reported to have bought a house, said to be worth more than $3m in a Washington DC suburb.

And in an interview with Newsweek magazine last month, when he was asked about presidential ambitions, the 50-year-old replied, cryptically "we may have one final run left in our bones". The story was headlined not so subtly "The Manchurian Candidate".

So on Monday there was also a gentle warning from Robert Gibbs that Mr Huntsman still has a job to do until his bags are packed.

"The president and, I think, the American people, expect that somebody that holds the post of ambassador from the United States to China would dedicate their full energy and time to that position," he said.

China hand

Mr Huntsman was intimately involved in the 2008 US presidential election as national co-chair of Senator John McCain's campaign. He also has deep pockets. His father's packaging firm came up with the clamshell box used to sell McDonald's Big Mac hamburgers and made billions of dollars.

File image of Jon Huntsman speaking on 16 May 2009 as US President Barack Obama looks on US President Barack Obama chose Mr Huntsman to be his top diplomat in China

Some say his Mormon faith may count against him in any election. He has seven children, two of them adopted. So too, they say, could the fact he accepted Barack Obama's offer to become ambassador in Beijing. So will it?

Well China may not have been a big issue in 2008 but it has since become more prominent in America's politics. The supposed threat to US jobs from China, the trade deficit, the charge that China is manipulating its currency, all added up to make China an issue in last year's Congressional elections.

Depending on the state of the US recovery, the level of US unemployment and the relative strength of China's economy, it could still be one in 2012.

Ironically too President Obama's decision to appoint Jon Huntsman may turn out to have helped a potential rival burnish his credentials. Mr Huntsman was undeniably well qualified to be ambassador to Beijing.

He's fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he'd been an ambassador already, to Singapore, a US Trade Representative dealing with China, and a successful Republican Governor of Utah who was re-elected in November 2008 with almost 80% of the vote.

To that list he can now add the fact that he has held one of America's most important overseas diplomatic positions and has first-hand experience of dealing with the real China challenge, one of the most important tasks for any future American president.

So courtesy of President Obama he has another string to his bow that may help distinguish him from potential Republican rivals.

'Wielding sticks'

And what of his, admittedly brief, time in Beijing? Well he seems to have been pretty well-regarded in diplomatic circles - 2010 was a tough time for US-China relations, buffeted by dispute after dispute.

But, a seasoned, confident political operator, Jon Huntsman rarely appeared ruffled by his sometimes bruising encounters with Chinese officials.

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If he becomes candidate Huntsman, he can point to an intimate knowledge of many of the hottest issues in US-China relations that concern not just Republicans but many Americans”

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The day after he arrived in China he was summoned to a meeting with the Commerce Minister Chen Deming, who he said told him "in no uncertain terms" what Beijing thought about US plans to raise duties on Chinese tyre imports.

That may have been a message from an increasingly confident and rising China to America's new ambassador. But Mr Huntsman was apt to do some straight-talking of his own.

In December 2009, shortly before Liu Xiaobo was convicted of subversion, Ambassador Huntsman sent a letter to China's foreign minister expressing concern about Mr Liu's detention and calling on the government to safeguard the legal rights of Chinese citizens as guaranteed by China's constitution.

A diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks recounts how the Deputy Director General of the Americas Department in China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ding Xiaowen was incensed.

Mr Ding summoned a US embassy official for a "demarche" saying he would "attempt to refrain from 'becoming emotional'". Mr Ding then said the US had "no right to point fingers" and should "cease using human rights an excuse to 'meddle' in China's internal affairs".

A few weeks later, in January 2010, in another cable released by Wikileaks, Ambassador Huntsman reports to Washington that "the Chinese continue to signal intense displeasure with US positions on issues from the Dalai Lama to Taiwan arms sales and internet freedom, which they cite as reasons why they may not co-operate with the US on other issues".

In the cable Mr Huntsman is open about what he sees as problems in the relationship from America's point of view, "10% US unemployment coupled with our huge trade deficit with China, China's increasing use of industrial policies to restrict market access, and an undervalued renminbi .. the opacity of China's legal and regulatory systems and widespread official corruption also serve as barriers to US businesses".

US and Chinese flags fly in Washington on 18 January 2011 Wikileaks cables show Mr Huntsman assessing the challenges and advantages of engaging with China

If he becomes candidate Huntsman, he can point to an intimate knowledge of many of the hottest issues in US-China relations that concern not just Republicans but many Americans.

He can also point to his experience in trying to build a co-operative relationship with China. The cable is titled "Building US jobs by leveraging China's growth". Much of it stresses the need to engage China because there are many benefits that might accrue to America.

He writes that "more than ever before we must ensure that our relations with China continue to pay real dividends - especially in creating jobs for Americans .. virtually every major US company has a presence in China... for many of them China was their sole profit-centre during last year's global economic downturn".

But mixed-in is some tough-talking too. Later in the cable he says that among the measures that may help maximise job-creation in America are "wielding sticks" with China. He writes of what he calls "China's hubris that it can call the shots", saying without the "credible threat of retaliatory action" US government complaints about discriminatory trade policies are "falling on increasingly deaf Chinese ears".

He concludes: "We may want to consider ways to toughen up our talking points and enhance the use - or the perception of likely use - of other real sticks in order to achieve market opening and job-creating objectives. This will require some consideration of just how much disruption in our economic relations we are willing to countenance if we must carry through on threats."

Long slog

In his cables at least Mr Huntsman you might say demonstrates a few finely-honed political instincts about what might sound good to voters back in America.

There's a focus on US jobs, the challenge posed by China, the opportunities, the willingness to do some blunt talking when it comes to trade and human rights.

Will it damage him to have been a Republican who served under a Democrat president? Some say it might. But you can make up your own mind from the cables.

He has of course not declared anything yet about his intentions. He may be resigning for reasons we know nothing about. He may decide not to stand as a candidate for the Republican nomination.

If he does throw his hat in the ring it will be a long slog to 2012. But even if he does not have a go this time, it's worth keeping an eye on the "Manchurian Candidate".

Jon Huntsman is the only US foreign service diplomat I have seen interviewed who had my entire attention for the duration of his talk with Charlie Rose. He's the kind of personality Kennedy might have brought into his administration, that rare breed, a likeable intellectual. He's like Senator Daniel Moynihan, but more princely or perhaps more patrician. (Martin, Saudi Arabia)

For the Manchurian candidate, this seems to be the most appropriate time to jump-start the campaign. He should therefore go on and start working on policies, convincing enough to counter the charm of 'Obamamania'. (Okello Owade, Machakos, Kenya)

I think he would be an excellent Presidential candidate - and President at that. He is incredibly smart, well versed in international affairs and business, not to mention China, and to boot he was a incredibly successful two-term Governor. I'm a Democrat and I would vote for him. (Mark, Arlington, US)

Huntsman will have something to say to people during the campaign. China - America relation is currently sour. A lot of people have interest on this issue, hence a chance for the outgoing envoy during the campaign. (Thumbiko Washington, Malawi)

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