China-savvy tea partyer takes helm of US House panel on Asia

By Matthew Pennington ,AP

WASHINGTON — The new leader of the House panel overseeing U.S. policy to the Asia-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 �X 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 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, he met with China’s then-leader to help secure the release of a U.S. college researcher accused of stealing state secrets.

So while many tea party members are wary of international engagement, Salmon embraces an active U.S. role in Asia, including in a regional free-trade agreement. And in a Congress where China typically faces a blanket of 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 on his chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Asia-Pacific. The 56-year-old said he’d praise where it’s due, but ��I’m going to be blunt sometimes.��

He showed a willingness to do that at a hearing last 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 �X and more moderate �X Republicans, John McCain, if the senator seeks re-election next year as expected.

The Asia panel Salmon will chair has become more active than its Senate counterpart, although traditionally the upper house has been viewed as more influential in U.S. foreign policy, said former Republican Rep, Jim Leach, who chaired the subcommittee from 1996 to 2001. The political background of the chair matters less than their understanding of the region and staff support, he said.