By John Whitesides
HOOKSETT, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman called on Monday for a new era of U.S. global engagement based on strong economic partnerships and a leading role in what he said would be a new "Pacific Century."
Huntsman, a former U.S. envoy to China who bills himself as the most experienced foreign policy hand in the Republican race, said the United States should erase the old Cold War-era maps designed to contain communism and focus on building new relationships.
"Today, we need a foreign policy based on expansion -- the expansion of America's competitiveness and engagement in the world through partnerships and trade agreements," he said in a foreign policy speech at Southern New Hampshire University.
Huntsman, struggling to gain traction in a crowded Republican field, also drew several sharp distinctions with rival Mitt Romney, including a slap at his plan for U.S. military supremacy that would include an increase in the Navy shipbuilding rate.
"Simply advocating more ships, more troops and more weapons is not a viable path forward," said Huntsman, who is mired in single digits in national polls of the 2012 race. "We need more agility, more intelligence and more economic engagement with the world."
Huntsman, who criticized Romney's call last week for a review of the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan, advocated a quick withdrawal of all U.S. troops there and said the military should not be used for nation-building.
"We cannot social engineer other countries. We can't even social engineer our own inner cities," he said. "It is cultural arrogance to think we can make tribal leaders into democratic leaders."
He said a new "Pacific Century" was dawning as population, economic power and military might shifted toward the Asia-Pacific region, and that the United States must strengthen its relationship with China and India to navigate it.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, vowed to press China to open its markets to U.S. exports and increase internal demand, and he called for a renewed U.S. collaboration with China on clean energy technologies, combating global pandemics and countering piracy.
"Our relationship with China has been a transactional one for 40 years. We buy their products. They buy our bonds," he said. "But for a truly healthy relationship, we need to infuse the relationship with shared values."
Huntsman entered the White House race this summer shortly after returning from his post in Beijing, but he has failed to catch fire in a still-unsettled Republican battle for the right to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
Conservatives who play a big role in the Republican nominating process have not warmed to his moderate views on social issues like civil unions for homosexuals and climate change.
But he is counting on a strong showing in more moderate New Hampshire, which will hold its contest in early January, to give him momentum in later states, particularly Florida.
While his support in national polls has been in low single digits, he has seen his numbers inch up in New Hampshire. A University of New Hampshire poll last week had him in third place in the state at 8 percent support, well behind leader Romney at 37 percent and businessman Herman Cain in second at 12 percent.
Huntsman criticized Obama's economic and foreign policies and said rebuilding the U.S. economy would be crucial to raising America's standing and influence in the world.
He said an overhaul of tax and regulatory codes would make it easier for U.S. companies to compete globally. He called for quick passage by Congress of trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
"America cannot project power abroad when we are weak at home," he said.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)