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Huntsman unpacking in ambassador's suite

By: and Asia

August 17, 2009

A face familiar to the plastics industry has become the face of the U.S. government in China. Jon Huntsman Jr., a member of the family that owns part of The Woodlands, Texas-based chemical and plastics supplier Huntsman Corp., arrives in Beijing this month as the new U.S. ambassador.

Huntsman is a longtime diplomat who speaks fluent Mandarin, and he and his family have an adopted daughter from China, 9-year-old Gracie Mei. He has been U.S. ambassador to Singapore, deputy U.S. trade representative responsible for Asia and, most recently, governor of Utah.

He's also served as a top executive at Huntsman Corp., where his brother Peter is CEO and his father Jon Sr. — the company founder — is chairman.

I'm guessing Jon Huntsman Jr. probably is the first U.S. ambassador to China who could intelligently discuss global investment trends in polyurethanes and whose father is a member of the Plastics Hall of Fame.

But it's really too soon to say what President Barack Obama's choice of Huntsman might mean for plastics or manufacturing. It might not mean very much.

Huntsman will have a full plate, navigating the complex relationship between the two countries and dealing with some very difficult issues, including North Korea's nuclear ambitions; Taiwan; China's concerns about U.S. fiscal policy and its effect on Chinese dollar holdings; and American concerns about freedom in China.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Huntsman said he would be a “hard-headed realist” about U.S.-China relations, and that he would not shy away from confronting sensitive issues such as human rights or ethnic riots in Tibet or Xinjiang.

But he also said the two countries must build trust and productively tackle a range of issues, including bolstering the fragile global economy, military affairs, and dealing with challenges like climate change.

Plastics News interviewed Huntsman about China back in 1996, before the country joined the World Trade Organization and started to make the front page of business newspapers seemingly every day. At the time, Huntsman said things that still echo today.

He cautioned that there were major challenges for U.S. firms in China, from trade barriers to cultural issues, and that companies needed to be very careful in assessing on-the-ground opportunities and not getting in too deep without proper preparation.

He also spotted another trend that has since come true with surprising rapidity — the development of China's skills in manufacturing. Huntsman compared China in the 1990s to Japan in the 1950s.

“I fully anticipate we'll see some very high-quality goods in all industrial areas coming out of China,” he said.

One wonders what the ambassador sees today as the next phase in the U.S.-China manufacturing relationship.

Steve Toloken is a Plastics News staff reporter and Asia bureau chief, based in Guangzhou, China.

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