US and China should return to roots of diplomacy to mend ties: Former US ambassador to China

Former US Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman Jr. called the lack of dialogue between the US and China an unacceptable crisis. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Look past the differing points of view and rivalries, and put diplomacy and dialogue first. That was the call by former United States ambassador to Russia, China and Singapore Jon M. Huntsman Jr at a fireside chat at the 55th Wharton Global Forum on Saturday. Mr Huntsman shared his views with Wharton School’s dean, Ms Erika James, on a range of international issues, from the ongoing US-China tensions to the fallout Russia will face in the aftermath of its war with Ukraine.

He called the lack of dialogue and interaction between the US and China an unacceptable crisis, as both countries share plenty of areas where they can find common ground and build a relationship of trust. Said Mr Huntsman: “While diplomats are doing their work of interacting, problem-solving and talking – even though sometimes, talking doesn’t yield immediate results – at least you’re there at the table.” His comments echoed Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong’s call for countries to work together and find common ground.

Mr Wong had given a keynote speech at the same event at Shangri-La Singapore highlighting how the tussle between the US and China could affect supply chains and fragment the world further. Ms James asked Mr Huntsman, who is a University of Pennsylvania alumnus, about the long-term implications of the Russia-Ukraine war, which is now into its second year. Mr Huntsman said Ukraine had its sovereignty violated in a most grotesque way, and is a nation that was essentially trashed by an aggressor.

He added that if Russia’s plan is to create an empire and exert its influence through the war, the reverse is happening instead. Finland and Sweden have applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, creating a tighter military alliance, even as stability in Eastern Europe wavers.

But Mr Huntsman warned that the Russians have more allies than people think. Iran has exported domestically produced drones and missiles to Russia, while China has supported Russia diplomatically. North Korea is said to have sent weapons to the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary arm, and Belarus has allowed Russia to attack Ukraine’s capital Kyiv by allowing soldiers through its borders.

At the United Nations General Assembly in February to call for an immediate end to the war and that Russia leave Ukraine, Mali, Eritrea and Nicaragua voted against the resolution while 32 countries, including India, abstained.

Still, Mr Huntsman, a former Republican presidential candidate, believes the war will cost Russia and President Vladimir Putin, whom he has met, on many fronts.

Mr Huntsman said a brain drain of young talent such as entrepreneurs and innovators is happening, which means Russia will lose its ability to compete in the future.

Young Russian men who have been called up by the Kremlin in a military mobilisation effort but who refused to fight in the war have also fled the country.

Many American and international companies left the country overnight, so Russia’s decision to go to war will impact its fortunes, and he sees no way for it to re-enter the global economy.

Mr Huntsman said Russia’s economy will continue to waste away, with no desire on the part of major trading nations of the world to re-engage the country.

This spells a very sad state of affairs for Russia economically, he added, and also in terms of what the post-Putin period will look like.

During a light-hearted moment in the chat, Mr Huntsman recalled fondly the highlight of his time here as US ambassador from 1992 to 1993.

He was once summoned to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s office for a lecture by the former prime minister on the state of the world.

Mr Huntsman said: “I listened and I learnt, (though) not everything I agreed with. But I got great wisdom that I carried through life.” Mr Huntsman noted that Singapore has been a great friend and a great partner.

He said: “People call certain nation states indispensable. I would call Singapore one such indispensable nation, not just for the United States, but for the entire world.”

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.