BEIJING — China's expected future leader praised outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman on Thursday amid talk of the former Utah governor launching a presidential run.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping called Huntsman "an old friend of the Chinese people" who had made "unremitting efforts to promote the exchanges between our two people.

"Let me express out appreciation for your contributions. We will never forget what you have done," said Xi, who is expected to begin taking over from President Hu Jintao next year.

Xi's comments came during a meeting in Beijing with an unusually large delegation of 10 U.S. senators led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, which Huntsman also attended. The delegation is in China for talks with Chinese officials on topics from clean energy to human rights.

Xi said the presence of Reid's high-powered delegation "fully demonstrates how much importance the U.S. Senate attaches to growing U.S.-China relations."

Huntsman, 50, officially leaves his Beijing post on April 30 and is due to visit the state of New Hampshire just weeks later, further suggesting he is weighing a White House bid.

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A fluent Mandarin speaker from his time as a Mormon missionary, Huntsman has won praise from the administration for his work as ambassador. But White House aides have been less than enthused by his interest in exploring a Republican presidential bid next year.

Having served a Democratic president could limit Huntsman's support by conservatives who influence the Republican nomination process.

Huntsman surprised many strategists when he accepted the post in China, considered one of the United States' top diplomatic assignments.