In the wake of Donald Trump breaking with over 35 years of American foreign policy protocol by speaking with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen over the phone on Friday, Republican politicians have been trying their best to cool everyone down.
One of the loudest voices for calm has been Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and ambassador to China, who is now reportedly in the running to become the next secretary of state. Over the past few days, Huntsman has defended Trump’s decision to take Tsai’s calls to a number of American media outlets. Yesterday, he told ABC that Trump was “absolutely right” in picking up the phone:
Well, the call came in from President Tsai Ing-wen, he made the choice to take it, which I think was absolutely right. You have a duly-elected leader in Taiwan who chose to make the call, we have a lot of interests in our relationship with Taiwan. We share values, we have a large trading relationship. We don’t talk nearly enough, so the fact that at this point, before he’s president, he would take that call, I think that’s okay.
However, when asked if the call signaled a shift in US-China policy, Huntsman hedged.
“No, I wouldn’t go that far. I think there’s a lot more to come, would be my guess, one the president-elect becomes president. But we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said. “I’m sure he’s got a broader strategy.”
While no one is sure what that “broader strategy” may be, Huntsman appears confident in letting Trump’s complete lack of foreign policy guide the way. On Saturday, he told the Salt Lake Tribune that Trump “provides an element of nontraditional thinking and action that may result in new ways of approaching the one-China framework.”
On Fox and Friends on Saturday morning, Huntsman echoed these same sentiments, saying that Trump’s “unconventional manner” may signal a fresh approach to the “complex and sensitive” relationship between the US and China, adding that its really no surprise that Trump is taking this approach and nothing to worry about either.
Having lived in Taiwan twice and having lived in China once, there’s a little too much hyperventilating about this one.
The issue should be this: Does Taiwan deserve a little more space? We share values, they have a big economy, we trade, they have a civil society that is large and robust and mature, and we ought to be giving them a little more space. If that kind of comes out of this whole discussion, that people recognize that Taiwan may be a little different than they thought, then maybe that should kind of create a template for the way that the new Trump administration sees the region.
Watching some very intelligent people trying to put an adult sheen on Trump's foreign policy Tourettes outbursts. I sympathize, I really do.
— Patrick Chovanec (@prchovanec) December 5, 2016
On Sunday, Vice President-elect Mike Pence explained that the protocol-breaking conversation between Trump and Tsai was “just a courtesy call,” not intended as a major shift in US foreign policy, calling the uproar surrounding the call a “tempest in a teapot.”
“He took the call, accepted her congratulations and good wishes and it was precisely that,” Pence said on ABC’s This Week.
However, many observers are not convinced that the call was a mere formality, believing instead that it may serve as a signal for future diplomatic relations with China under the Trump administration. According to the Washington Post, the call was planned long in advance by Trump’s East Asia advisers, who have been pushing for a stronger Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Beijing has primarily blamed the call on Taiwanese “shenanigans” preying on Trump’s absence of foreign policy experience. Still, the foreign ministry also lodged a stern solemn representation with the United States on Saturday, stating that the “one China” policy is the “the political bedrock of China-US relations.”
On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were no longer top candidates for the position of Secretary of State, instead naming Huntsman has one of the new contenders. If Huntsman does end up with the job, his comments on the Taiwan call may just come back to haunt him, along with time as ambassador in Beijing.
Huntsman’s connection to Taiwan goes back to when he served as a Mormon missionary on the island from 1979 to 1980, picking up Mandarin during his time there, before returning to work in Taiwan from 1987 to 1988. After serving one term as the governor of Utah, he was picked by Barack Obama to be ambassador to China in 2009. He resigned from his post in 2011 and went on to co-chair the No Labels Organization, a centrist group which aims to work toward a policy agenda that enough Republican and Democratic lawmakers can hopefully embrace.
Back in May, Huntsman tentatively voiced his support for Trump, saying, “If he’s the nominee, I’m a Republican and I tend to gravitate towards whomever the nominee is.”
Then in September, Huntsman doubled down on that statement by declaring that he would vote for Trump despite disagreements on a “range of issues,” because he believed that Trump would “take on the Washington establishment.”
One week later, Huntsman did a complete flip-flop after a video tape leaked featuring Trump bragging about groping women. Huntsman promptly called for Trump to drop out of the race in favor of his Pence.
“In a campaign cycle that has been nothing but a race to the bottom — at such a critical moment for our nation — and with so many who have tried to be respectful of a record primary vote, the time has come for Governor Pence to lead the ticket,” Huntsman told The Salt Lake Tribune in October.
Despite being in the running to add to Trump’s cabinet of billionaires, Huntsman has not said whether he actually ended up voting for Trump.
Huntsman endorsed Trump until Access Hollywood. He & Romney are rivals — Trump picking him = revenge on Mitt. China dislikes Huntsman (McD). https://t.co/k117X3ezju
— Edward Wong (@comradewong) December 4, 2016
Even before defending Trump’s Taiwan call, Huntsman was not well liked in China. Perhaps the most controversial incident during his time as ambassador came in 2011 when a video tape went viral showing Huntsman present at a “Jasmine Revolution” style protest in the center of Beijing.
“Hey Mr Ambassador, what are you doing here?” a Chinese man asks Huntsman in the video. “I’m just here to look around,” the ambassador responds. “You want to see China in chaos, don’t you?” the man shoots back.
“No, I don’t,” Huntsman replies before realizing that he should get out of there as fast as possible.
Later, the US Embassy clarified that Huntsman’s presence at Wangfujing on that fateful day was “purely coincidental.” However, that didn’t stop his Chinese name from being blocked by Chinese censors (joining “Hillary Clinton” and “Wangfujing”).
In the wake of the incident, we wrote: ”In any case, one thing is certain now. If Jon Huntsman should ever become the president of the United States some day, the Jasmine Revolution episode will come back to haunt him.”
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