President Barack Obama plans to nominate Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, replacing Jon Huntsman, an administration official said.
Locke, 61, who is of Chinese ancestry, is a former two-term governor of Washington and has led annual trade talks between the U.S. and China. Obama may name Locke as soon as today, the official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the announcement hadn’t been made. Huntsman, 50, is set to vacate the ambassador’s post on April 30.
If confirmed by the Senate, Locke would take over the diplomatic mission in a country that is a linchpin in Obama’s trade policy. China’s economy passed Japan’s to become the world’s second-largest last year, and the Asian nation is the second-biggest U.S. trading partner after Canada.
His experience in trade negotiations with China makes him an “excellent” choice, said Ted Dean, chairman of the Beijing-based American Chamber of Commerce in China. “He’s very familiar with our issues and we’ve seen him at work on them, we’ve also seen him speak out publicly on issues that are important to us.”
At the last round of the annual trade talks, held in Washington in December, China agreed to curtail the use of pirated software by the government and state-owned enterprises that were hurting sales by U.S. companies such as Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp. The agreement included provisions that would track implementation and are showing results, Dean said.
Obama regularly cites China as a top economic competitor to the U.S., and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Congress last week that the two countries are in a “competition for influence” around the world. Locke’s Commerce Department reported a $273.1 billion trade deficit with China last year, a 20.4 percent increase from 2009 and the biggest U.S. bilateral trade gap.
China has expanded its global presence as it searches for commodities to fuel its economic growth. In response, Obama has traveled to countries such as India and Indonesia and met with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to boost trade. As commerce secretary, Locke has been a central figure in Obama’s drive to double U.S. exports in the next five years.
The economic relationship between China and the U.S., marked by more than $400 billion in annual trade, is complicated by disagreements on issues as varied as human rights, China’s enforcement of intellectual property laws and what Obama officials say is the artificially low value of China’s currency.
Locke is popular in China, thanks to his long relationship with the country and his visits there. On a trip last October to open a Sam’s Club warehouse store in Guangdong province, he was rushed by so many fans that Huntsman, who was accompanying him, compared Locke’s air of celebrity to that of the rock star Bono, of the group U2.
Locke’s grandfather immigrated more than a century ago to Washington state from Guangdong province, working as a servant in exchange for English lessons. Both of his parents were also born in China and Locke spoke Taishanese, a Chinese dialect, at home in Seattle. He didn’t begin English lessons until he went to preschool.
When Locke was 10, his family took him to see his grandmother, who had fled China and lived in a Hong Kong refugee camp. The family’s plan to leave him with his grandmother was abandoned when he became homesick and persuaded his parents to bring him back to the U.S., he said in an interview last year.
Almost four decades later, after attending Yale University and Boston University’s law school, Locke returned to China as Washington’s governor.
After he left the governorship and before being nominated to the Commerce post, Locke worked on issues involving China as a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, a Seattle-based law firm. Obama’s plan to name Locke as ambassador to Beijing was previously reported by ABC News.
Huntsman’s decision to resign has led to speculation that the former governor of Utah may be considering a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.