Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. is Chairman of the Atlantic Council following a varied career that includes serving as Governor of Utah, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, and U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and China. He ran afoul of Chinese authorities when he showed up at the site of a planned pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing. Asked why he was there, he said, "I'm just here to look around." His Chinese name was then temporarily blocked from Chinese search engines. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen met with Ambassador Huntsman recently to discuss U.S. policies toward Asia.
inFOCUS: Have we actually realigned our policies, military and otherwise, to focus more heavily on Asia? And secondly, how does that make the people in Asia feel–specifically the Chinese–who seem to view this as a threat to them. Although we presented it in a very positive way, clearly the Chinese have mixed views. So could you talk about the pivot in terms of what we’ve actually done, why we’ve done it, and how people view us?
Jon Huntsman: We shouldn’t confuse a diplomacy exercise or a diplomatic term with a real strategy or a set of policies, because we never left Asia. And, the whole thought that we’ve returned, as a former Secretary of State said, is a little ridiculous. So it confuses our allies and friends in the region because they’ve all worked very hard with the United States since, well, if you want to go back to 1898 the Spanish American War where we took the Philippines and we set up a base at the time, but we’ve been actively engaged in the Asian Pacific for a very long time. In fact, I would say that it is a region of success when you look at the security balances that we’ve been able to achieve. They haven’t been easy to achieve but I would argue that in the case of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, even Southeast Asia we’ve been able to create security balances that have held the peace, particularly since 1975.
So we’re pivoting, or rebalancing, broadening and deepening our engagement perhaps, with Marines in Darwin [Australia], P8 Poseidons, and an extra carrier battle group. All of that is fine, but we’d be doing that anyway as we follow our interests, which are more predominant in the Asia Pacific region today than they were a generation ago. I don’t quite see what the “pivot” or “rebalance” is about beyond broadening and deepening as [Defense Secretary] Ash Carter is trying to do with Vietnam on the security side, which is an important component. But I think that we’d be doing that anyway.
iF: Does it make the Chinese nervous?
JH: Of course it does. But what’s wrong with that?
iF: That was going to be one of my questions.
JH: I think [U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton] Carter is a terrific professional, but he’s about ten years dated when he says we share a common architecture with China. We don’t share a common architecture. Their aspirations developed a brand new architecture, and I think we need to recognize that and speak about it. They want to develop new institutions and a new architecture to protect their interests, which runs counter to our own aspirations in the region. They have core interests: Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Nansha, South China Sea, East China Sea. And we have a huge core interest too, which I haven’t heard anyone talk about, called Global Commons, which we’ve aspired to and protected, and spent a lot of money on for 250 years. There’s no region of the world where the protection and maintenance of the Global Commons is more important than the Asia Pacific region. So, to say that we share a common architecture? Not quite. China has evolved into a more aspirational country, they have more resources, and they’re more assertive.
iF: The assertive part, would you talk about that?
JH: It’s impossible to know what China spends on defense, but we estimate a 10% increase year after year for total spending, so it may be $140-150 billion. They spend more on the Ministry of Domestic Security and public security, both of which fell under Zhou Yongkang, who is now under house arrest. They would hope to have a benign external environment because they can’t grow internally with threats and troubles outside. If they want to maintain 6/7/8 percent GDP growth, which may be very difficult in the years ahead, which provides jobs and keeps unemployment low, which keeps their party in power, they need a benign environment in which to grow.
It’s not just money; what they’re spending money on is important. We spend $550-600 billion a year on defense, and the biggest chunk of that is healthcare! They are spending money on maritime forces and strategic capabilities, including missiles. Their submarine fleet is getting very good, they’re not buying the old rust buckets from Russia any more. They’re developing their own capable fleet. Their surface combatant ships are good and getting better and they’re deploying them more actively.
iF: That doesn’t sound like the recipe for a benign environment. Does the U.S. government see that as a threat to our interests in the region?
JH: Potentially. You have A2AD (Anti-access/area-denial) capabilities on their part: anti-denial, anti-access weapons. Well, of course they do; what did we think that they’re going to build? We have aircraft carriers, we pose a great threat. They’re not going to sit around and watch us through binoculars; they’re going to build systems that threaten us. What should we do?
iF: That would be my next question.
JH: We should build anti-A2AD systems that counter their capabilities. That’s the way the relationship progresses. It’s not a benign body of water, and never has been. We have fought two wars since 1945, allied with Japan in both: Korea and Vietnam. It’s almost miraculous that since 1975 we’ve been able to hold the peace in the Asia Pacific region; a minor miracle of recent diplomatic-military history. The peace has been held because of certain security balances that have been maintained. It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been without cost, and it hasn’t been without our men and women being there, on site. Which we don’t have in the Middle East, as a comparison, which I think we will need to have longer term in order to do for the Middle East what we’ve been able to do for the Asia Pacific region. Many of the dynamics are different but in terms of security there isn’t a lot of difference.
iF: We spent a long time occupying Japan and we still have troops in Korea. Is it that kind of long-term presence that helps to create security?
JH: Let’s stop and see what created the secure environment. There are balances, multiple balances, within the region, including Korea–which is maintained by Korean forces. We provide a major land presence with our Army and a significant air presence through our Air Force. North Korea lays claim to the entire peninsula. They have to see any kind of southward intrusion as being too high a cost to bear, so we’ve invested heavily in ensuring that it will be. With respect to Taiwan, the Taiwanese have maintained land forces and other defensive capabilities to also make that a high hurdle. Not to mention that we have readily deployable forces in the region and we are linked together by the Taiwan Relations Act. In Korea it’s a treaty relationship. In the East China Sea with respect to Japan and the Senkakus we have Japanese forces, we have maritime, air, and readily deployable forces. So in all cases we’ve been able to combine air, land, and sea with mobility prospects from the region to say, “If you disrupt the balance, there will be a very high price to pay.” That’s been maintained since 1975, and that is good policy. That’s not a pivot, that’s not a rebalance, its been built up for a very long time.
In the case of the South China Sea, we do not have such a balance, and this is where we are weak. This is going to occupy policy makers and strategists for some time, because there isn’t an easy answer by virtue of geography, history, and the number of claimants involved. There are competing interpretations of history, and of course different maps are used to understand the region. I don’t buy the idea that we can solve it by talking tough, or we send in a carrier battle group and all will be well—that’s a recipe for disaster. Playing the chessboard without a final move in mind ultimately can be catastrophic. We need a multi-pronged strategy that will get us from where we sit today into the future.
iF: I suspect that you’ve got one in mind.
JH: There are a couple of elements that need to be brought to bear. The Chinese like to talk about their core values—we have core values too: democracy, free markets, and freedom generally. I would say the Global Commons is a core value that has to drive everything that we do and say. We need to package this in the sense of a rule of law. What are the rules of the road going to be? And that’s where I’m a little concerned about the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS), to which the U.S. is not a signatory. We are the odd person out and I think that needs to be reviewed.
Second, we can’t let China “bilateralize” the issues. In one-on-one negotiations with Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, the smaller countries don’t stand a chance. So why allow that to happen? It needs to be “multilateralized,” if there is such a word, in the sense that we look beyond just ASEAN and the claimants. There are a lot of seafaring nations in the world who would see this as in their interest too, because if this goes south, no pun intended, we’re in for a very difficult set of circumstances given the importance of the body of water economically and strategically. We should be convening seafaring nations to coalesce around a broader strategy. China will not like it, of course, but they would find it much more difficult to stand up to a group of seafaring nations including some major powers in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and even the Middle East (to the extent they wanted to participate). That would be much more difficult for them.
Third, what do you do about the real estate? The Chinese in recent centuries have not been a hegemonic power, with the exception of a desire to reclaim their “lost” territories: Hong Kong in ’97, Macau in ’99. I was in Taiwan leading a security delegation and there is talk there about what their future holds. So what do you do? I think that you have to create a new template for how land is divided, based on UNCLOS or some understanding of the Twelve Mile Limit and the Exclusive Economic Zones. Then everybody gets a little bit of something for resource extraction, maybe even resource sharing options. We underplay the importance of fishing in the region. People are not going to go to war over resource extraction, but they will go to war over fishing–and we don’t understand that. Then the issue of sealanes that need to remain open for trade and joint military exercises. There is a lot that needs to be thought through with an enforcement mechanism where we incentivize people for holding the peace. I haven’t seen this strategy laid out by anyone. What would you do if you sat in a big room with a bunch of smart people trying to lay out a way forward? I haven’t heard any articulation other than tough talk and a carrier battle group. And that’s a recipe for disaster. We need a strategy based on real ideas, not just tough talk.
iF: You mentioned South America. We tend to think of the Pacific as the Asian Pacific but the Pacific Ocean is our backyard as well. The Chinese have made large investments in South America. Would you talk about what that means for U.S. policy? It appears to disconnect them from us.
JH: China has one calling card: money. And it’s very enticing and alluring for those to whom they make an approach. I’ve watched them in Sub-Saharan Africa for years. Now in Latin America, in Central America, in the Caribbean there are a couple of things in play. One is a “tit for tat” thing. As we play an aggressive game of diplomacy in their neighborhood, improve relationships with Mongolia, Vietnam, India, Kyrgyzstan, etc. they do the mirror image in our backyard. I don’t think that a lot of Americans see it that way, but part of Chinese strategy is to say, “You’re going to play that game in our backyard? We’re going to do the same thing, but we have a lot more money to spend.”
Natural resources are another key interest for them and trade flows. The number of trade agreements that have been done with Mexico and in South America is quite impressive. It is also our own fault for not having been aggressive ourselves in our backyard. We’ve totally underplayed the region. We should have an energy strategy that links Mexico and Canada together with the United States. You look north—resources. You look south–resources. We’ve got a region that could be the strongest in the world as far into the 21st century as you can see, if only we had a strategy. But we can barely get our act together domestically. George W. Bush had it about right on trade and we had agreements with practically every region—I was a trade ambassador during this period—and I saw the power of trade; I lived it. I sat at negotiating tables, I saw the agreements, I negotiated these deals, and I saw what happened after and the good will that it would generate, and the important trade flows that would result. They’re not always perfect but I think they’re a very good and often underutilized weapon of national power. So we’ve underplayed the region and it’s our own fault for leaving a void that is clearly being taken up by China.
iF: is the TPP part of fixing that problem?
JH: Yes. TPP speaks to global economic competition and “upping our game” in an important region. It also has everything to do with U.S. credibility. There isn’t a country in Asia that doesn’t see TPP as a) really important in terms of lifting standards for trade, and b) an expression of American credibility, somewhat unparalleled in recent years. If we fail to deliver TPP it will be a huge blow to our credibility in the region, which is particularly important to our friends and allies in the region who want us there militarily, want us there values-wise, and want us there economically. TPP is the third part that is critically important.
iF: We have bilateral trade agreements with a lot of those countries. Is it the umbrella nature of TPP that makes everybody feel more secure?
JH: Yes. We have a free trade agreement with Singapore, with Australia, with Korea. We have a Trade Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and we’re trying to get one with Taiwan. We have a TIFA with India. This is all good, but we should always be moving toward a higher standard for trade. We have to remember that the trade rules of 10/15/20 years ago have changed so dramatically with new information technology, with cleaner technologies, with new kinds of cars hitting the roads, with data being exchanged with lightning speed, with banking transactions that are totally different than before. This gives us an opportunity to update some of those old agreements and to bring others who are not quite at that standard to “up their game” just a bit.
Let’s not forget that U.S. exports are huge job creators for us, too. Small businesses really love to export and they’re always looking for opportunities and when they can find them, it is a huge boon to your city and your state. With markets in Asia opening and their consumer classes expanding, they’re going to be buying a lot more. Whether it’s China or India or ASEAN—which is one of our largest trading partners—exports will be huge. This isn’t just about the United States changing its game, it’s really about breaking down barriers—tariff and non-tariff barriers—on the other side of the Pacific and on this side of the Pacific that really will enhance our export performance. I think that’s the one thing that we’re going to get out of this more than anything else.
iF: You’re looking for strategy again.
JH: Yes! Thank you—we don’t do that anymore in this country. Having lived in four countries during my career, only one of them doesn’t have a strategy and that’s this one. The market serves us well but legislatively we’re just sort of tripping over ourselves with small-ball conversations.
iF: Where do we put human rights? When Mrs. Clinton was Secretary of State she declined to raise human rights with China.
JH: I’ve come to learn from having dealt with the Chinese, probably as much as anybody, both in business as a trade negotiator and as a diplomat, that if you don’t raise them then they’ll interpret that as a sign of weakness. You can talk about them in different ways, but we have to recognize as Americans that we have a name brand abroad; whether we like it or not America stands for a few things. If we don’t live up to and talk about those things now and again, people misinterpret who we are and they get a little confused. If it’s liberty or freedom or democracy, if it’s human rights—all the above—people expect us, not in an in-your-face fashion, but in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances, to talk about these issues. We do ourselves a disservice when we shy away from it.
iF: What do we do about North Korea, which is a human rights question and then some?
JH: North Korea will solve itself.
JH: It will collapse.
iF: Does it become South Korea’s problem like East Germany became West Germany’s problem?
JH: In a sense there hasn’t been recent history to guide us beyond Germany and that was beyond anyone’s initial assessment of what it would cost. But the integration occurred and people are better today because of it. There’s no way that a regime like North Korea can survive. China, I think, increasingly gets that point too.
iF: So you have a nuclear Korean Peninsula?
JH: China is going to have to make the assessment—do they want a completely unstable and unpredictable regime across the Yalu River that has been endless trouble for them? I’ve seen their attitude change in recent years from the standard talking points to a grimace. I think in their minds the idea of a unified Korean Peninsula under the government of Seoul is more desirable outcome than the status quo. I may be wrong, but regimes like North Korea–their staying power is just not great. Not in a very open transparent world like we find today. Not when China, who has assisted them to the tune of billions of dollars per year, has basically had enough.
iF: One of the authors in this issue of inFOCUS postulates that because of certain problems China has including ecology, demography, debt and more, it probably really threatens the West, or its neighbors, for a period of 25-30 years. More of a window than a perpetual problem. After that, some of these things are going to start to catch up with them and they may not be able to sustain the military buildup. His point is that we better be really careful for the next 25-30 years, but on the outside China will likely revert to more of its local and internal concerns.
JH: If you look historically that has been the pattern; outward adventurism and then the realities of the domestic marketplace, incursions, riots, revolts, invasions, collapses of dynasties for 5000 years. So the trajectory we see today is not sustainable for all kinds of reasons. So for us, it’s a function of maintaining strong balances in the region. That’s what you do.
iF: So it’s right back to the beginning, which is strategy that looks like a multi-decade strategy.
JH: That’s right. It costs money, and it takes the time of our young men and women but that’s what we do.
iF: Let me come to the closing question; it’s a big question. We’re going to have another president and for a lot of the world it is problematic to watch us because every 4-8 years they know that we could turn it all over. How do we convince people that there are certain things that are immutable whether it’s R’s or D’s, Conservatives or Libertarians…
JH: Or vegetarians.
iF: You name it. How do we convince them that we are in it for the long haul no matter who the president is?
JH: It’s called shared goals. This nation deserves to have a few shared goals, a reminder of what our real values are and what we’re trying to achieve. Many observers have seen the last two administrations go from one extreme to another and their heads are spinning. I think we need a conversation to cover what we stand for. Bush tried to get it right, Obama tried to get it right, everyone tries to get it right but going to extremes and seeing where the Middle East is today has confused a lot of people. Protecting the Global Commons and expanding trade and opportunity must remain shared goals for the American people. We’ve got to be smart enough as a political class, whether Republican or Democrat to say what the transcendent themes that can be are tied to a strategy that administration after administration just has to get right.
iF: And then to continually articulate those themes.
JH: [Former Senator] Joe Lieberman and I coach at a group called No Labels, advocating a national strategic agenda that sets some big goals to focus on. Whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, these goals are absolutely just critical for survival in the 21st century if we want to remain the leading power in the world. We forget that up to the Eisenhower administration the National Security Council had a strategy council; they were the keepers of strategy. You have to have the right people out advocating for the big goals that are American goals, and hope that we can then build consistent policies around those. A lot of things will come and go naturally, subject to debate, discussion, and appropriation but there are some things that we’d have to keep focused on with some level of consistency.
iF: Consistency seems like a great way to end the interview. So let me thank you on behalf of the inFOCUS audience for your time and your very cogent thoughts.