With the selection, Obama may have sidelined a potentially formidable moderate Republican from the 2012 presidential field. For Huntsman, it's a chance to burnish his credentials and position himself as a viable hopeful - perhaps for 2016 if Obama is seen as a strong candidate for a second term in 2012.
Fluent in Mandarin Chinese from his days as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, the 49-year-old Huntsman is a popular two-term governor who served in both Bush administrations and was national co-chairman of Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign against Mr. Obama last year. Huntsman has made a name for himself advocating a moderate agenda in one of the most conservative U.S. states.
With Huntsman at his side, President Obama said in brief remarks in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room that he made the appointment "mindful of its extraordinary significance."
"Given the breadth of issues at stake in our relationship with China, this ambassadorship is as important as any in the world because the United States will best be able to deal effectively with global challenges in the 21st century by working in concert with China," President Obama said.
Huntsman recently made headlines for encouraging his party to swing in a more moderate direction if it wants to bounce back from the 2008 elections, angering some conservatives.
"I knew that because Jon is not only a Republican, but a Republican who co-chaired my opponent's campaign for the presidency this wouldn't be the easiest decision to explain to some members of his party," Mr. Obama said. "But here is what I also know: I know Jon is the kind of leader who always puts country ahead of party."
Huntsman said he never expected "to be called into action by the person who beat us. But I grew up understanding that the most basic responsibility one has is service to country. When the president of the United States asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that to me is the end of the conversation and the beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge. I stand here in my final term as governor with plenty to do. I wasn't looking for a new job in life, but a call from the president changed that."
Huntsman ended his remarks with his favorite Chinese saying, speaking in Mandarin: "Together we work, together we progress."
Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, said Huntsman is a Republican who "seems to understand the party has to adjust - not stubbornly believe that everything is OK and it is the country that has to change."
Huntsman's positions on the environment and other issues have led some to consider him a potential contender for president in 2012. He signed an initiative that would set a regional cap-and-trade effort to reduce global warming. In a 2006 speech at Shanghai Normal University, Huntsman spoke of the need for China and the U.S. to work together on environmental issues.
"The United States and China must be good examples and stewards of the Earth. We must match economic progress with environmental stewardship. The effects of industrialization are felt worldwide," Huntsman said then.
He has drawn the most attention for stating he favors civil unions for gay couples even though he backed a state constitutional amendment passed in 2004 that prohibited same-sex marriage.
Huntsman's comments on civil unions drew the ire of conservatives in Utah and elsewhere. Officials in Michigan last month canceled a Republican county fundraiser where Huntsman was to speak, saying he had abandoned important party principles.
Huntsman's career began as a staff assistant in the Reagan administration. He also was ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and deputy U.S. trade representative and U.S. trade ambassador under President George W. Bush.
Before becoming governor in 2005, Huntsman made millions as chairman and chief executive of his family business, Huntsman Corp., a global chemical manufacturer with more than 12,000 employees worldwide. Revenues last year exceeded $10 billion.
Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, have seven children, including adopted daughters from China and India. He dropped out of high school to play in a rock band, and spends his spare time playing in a band and mountain biking. He also rides a motorcycle and is a fan of motocross.
If confirmed by the Senate, Huntsman will succeed Clark Randt.
Randt, a classmate of former President George W. Bush at Yale University, served as Washington's top envoy to Beijing from July 2001 until January, making him the longest-serving U.S. ambassador to China since the two nations established diplomatic ties.
Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert would become governor until a special election in 2010.
By Associated Press Writer Darlene Superville; AP writers Brock Vergakis in Salt Lake City, Beth Fouhy in New York and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report