WASHINGTON — The new leader of the House panel overseeing U.S. policy on Asia and the Pacific is a rarity in Congress: a deeply conservative Republican who shuns isolationism, favors closer ties with Asia and stands poised to praise as well as criticize China — and even do it in Mandarin.
Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona is part of the tea party movement that advocates small government, a tough line on immigration and opposes President Barack Obama at every turn.
But Salmon also brings a unique perspective on Asia. He spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, where he learned to speak Chinese. He says he has visited mainland China more than 40 times, and during an earlier three-term stint in Congress that ended in 2000, met China's then-leader to help secure the release of a U.S. college researcher accused of stealing state secrets.
While many tea party members are wary of international engagement, Salmon embraces an active U.S. role in Asia, including a regional free-trade agreement. And in a Congress where China typically faces stiff criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, Salmon has a more balanced view.
"I want to be seen as someone who wants to work with China, but I'm certainly not going to be an appeaser," Salmon told The Associated Press about his chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. The loquacious 56-year-old said he'd be upbeat where appropriate, but "I'm going to be blunt sometimes."
He showed a willingness to do that at a hearing in February that examined China's aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in the disputed seas of East Asia. He told lawmakers that Beijing was playing a game of dare and seeing "if the U.S. has the guts" to challenge it.
Salmon has a background in telecommunications and public relations. He has most recently chaired a subcommittee overseeing policy toward Latin and Central America, often probing the U.S. response to cross-border migration. He is a potential primary challenger to one of the most prominent — and more moderate — Republicans, John McCain, if the Arizona senator seeks re-election next year as expected.
The Asia panel Salmon will now chair has become more active than its Senate counterpart, although traditionally the upper chamber has been viewed as more influential in U.S. foreign policy, said former Republican Rep. Jim Leach, who led the subcommittee between 1996 and 2001. The political background of the panel's leaders matter less than their understanding of the region and staff support, he said.
"My priority is going to be helping the president keep his promise on pivoting to Asia, which really hasn't materialized yet," Salmon said, referring to Obama's attempt to shift more U.S. attention to the fast-growing region after the post-9/11 preoccupation with the Mideast. Salmon criticized Obama for failing to win congressional support last year for the main trade pillar of the pivot: a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"Obama used no political capital, as he doesn't have any," Salmon said.
Salmon is a long-time advocate of economic engagement with China, which isn't in the trade partnership. He supported granting Beijing permanent most-favored-nation trade status and its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization. That provided leverage to persuade then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin to release Yongyi Song, the U.S. college researcher who had been arrested for gathering archive material on Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
"Salmon understood that when you deal with China on trade, you should still insist on democratic principles," said Yongyi, now a librarian and professor at California State University's Los Angeles campus. "He actually argued with China's top leader to win my release."
Today, Salmon voices disappointment that economic opportunity has not led to more political and religious freedoms for the Chinese. He said the U.S. should be ready to strengthen the hand of those whose rights are infringed by China, and nations, including U.S. allies, whose sovereignty is threatened.
Salmon said China should use its economic leverage in Pakistan and the Middle East to help combat Islamic militancy, and lean on North Korea to rein in its nuclear program and cyber mischief.
He disagrees, however, with Obama's effort to work with China on fighting climate change, saying a recent agreement on carbon emissions will hurt the U.S. economically.
Salmon has been a strong supporter of Taiwan. He's spoken comparatively little about Asia since returning to Congress in 2012, but when he has, he's been praising the self-governing island's leader, who has fostered closer ties with the Chinese mainland, helping reduce decades of tension in one of the region's hotspots.
Salmon supports the East China Sea initiative of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who aims to avoid confrontation among nations such as China, Japan and South Korea on historical and territorial disputes and to develop marine resources jointly. But the proposal has gotten little traction in Washington and Asia.