Huntsman Plans to Resign as U.S. Ambassador to China

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has submitted his resignation to President Barack Obama, an administration official said, a sign the former Utah governor may be considering a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

The resignation is effective April 30, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the resignation hasn’t been formally announced.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said earlier that Huntsman had told White House officials he planned to leave. Obama believes Huntsman’s experience has been vital in a key diplomatic post and that he expects the envoy, while in the job, to devote his “full energy and time to that position,” he said.

A search for his replacement is under way, Gibbs said.

Huntsman, 50, a Republican, was in his second term as Utah governor when Obama nominated him to be ambassador on May 16, 2009. He speaks Mandarin Chinese and was ambassador to Singapore under former President George H.W. Bush. Huntsman’s plan to resign was reported earlier by the Washington Post.

Before being named ambassador by Obama, Huntsman was the campaign co-chairman of the president’s opponent in the 2008 election, Republican Senator John McCain. Immediately after the election, he was cited as a potential contender for his party’s nomination in 2012.

Praise From Obama

When Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Washington on Jan. 19, Obama had praise for Huntsman’s service as ambassador, saying it demonstrated that “he and I believe that partisanship ends at the water’s edge.”

He also joked about a potential challenge from Huntsman in 2012.

“I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary,” Obama said.

In an interview with Newsweek magazine published Jan. 1, Huntsman declined to comment on whether he might run for president in 2012, while saying, “I think we may have one final run left in our bones.”

When he was nominated, Huntsman called China the “most important strategic bilateral relationship” for the U.S. His departure comes as the administration is pressing China to allow faster currency appreciation to help narrow trade imbalances that threaten to trigger protectionism and imperil the global economic recovery.

Pressuring North Korea

The ambassador also has been involved in U.S. efforts to gain stronger Chinese cooperation in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear program and blocking the nuclear ambitions of Iran.

Still, his relationship with Obama’s White House may be an issue in a competitive Republican primary election.

“We are loyal to our country and our president,” Huntsman told reporters at a state dinner in honor of China’s Hu on Jan. 19, suggesting how he might respond to questions about his service in a Democratic administration.

Republican strategist Vin Weber, while calling Huntsman “enormously talented,” said his work for the administration would pose a “daunting” challenge in the Republican race.

“He’s going to have to bend over backwards to prove he is separate from Obama,” Weber said. “Republicans are going to be suspicious for that relationship.”

Tapping Family Contacts

Weber is the co-chairman of the political action committee of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, another possible 2012 Republican candidate. He said Huntsman would likely tap his family contacts for early fundraising. Top Republican fundraisers said they had yet to be contacted by Huntsman or his supporters.

His father, Jon Meade Huntsman Sr., is the founder of the Salt Lake City-based chemical company Huntsman Corp. and worth $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

As governor, Huntsman came under criticism from some in his own party for supporting civil unions for gay couples and making Utah part of a regional alliance aimed at developing goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Other potential Republican candidates in 2012 include former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who lost the nomination battle in 2008 to Arizona Senator John McCain; former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who also ran in 2008; and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia also is exploring a bid.