President Barack Obama said he will nominate Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, putting him at the forefront of managing one of the nation’s “most critical” relationships.
As head of the Commerce Department, Locke has helped increase U.S. exports and “earned the trust of business leaders across America,” Obama said at the White House today.
“When he’s in Beijing, I know that American companies will be able to count on him to represent their interests in front of China’s top leaders,” the president said.
Locke, the first of Obama’s Cabinet secretaries to leave his post, said he will return to the birthplace of his grandfather, father and mother to be a “devoted and passionate advocate for America.”
He would replace Jon Huntsman, 50, who announced in January that he was resigning effective April 30. White House press secretary Jay Carney said no timetable has been set for naming a new Commerce secretary.
Among the potential candidates for the job are U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, according to a person familiar with the selection process. Obama also may look to the business community to fill the post and is considering former Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Kindler and Google Inc. CEO Eric Schmidt, another person said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.
If confirmed by the Senate, Locke, 61, would be the first Chinese-American to be the top U.S. envoy to 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.
A former two-term governor of Washington, Locke has led annual trade talks between the U.S. and China. 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.
Obama regularly cites China as a top economic rival to the U.S., and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress last week that the two countries are in a “competition for influence” around the world. In his remarks today, Obama called the U.S. relationship with China “one of the most critical of the 21st century.”
China has expanded its global presence as it searches for commodities to fuel its economy. 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 central to Obama’s drive to double U.S. exports to $3.1 trillion by 2014 from $1.6 trillion in 2009.
Locke said today that he was eager to “manage one of America’s most critical and complex diplomatic, economic and strategic relationships.”
The economic relationship between China and the U.S., marked by $457 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.
The yuan slipped 0.06 percent to 6.5721 per dollar as of the 4:30 p.m. close in Shanghai, after weakening 0.08 percent yesterday, according to the China Foreign Exchange Trade System. It touched 6.5628 on March 7, the strongest level since China unified official and market exchange rates at the end of 1993.
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.
Locke is popular in China, thanks to his long relationship with the country as a governor and as commerce secretary 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 with him, compared Locke’s air of celebrity with that of the rock star Bono, of the group U2.
Muhtar Kent, chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. and chairman of the U.S.-China Business Council, said in a statement that Locke’s recent successes in strengthening commercial relationships “makes him ideally suited to be a strong and effective ambassador to China.”
Citing the “rampant piracy in China,” Locke and others in the Obama administration have “succeeded in elevating the use of illegal software and other intellectual property concerns to the top of the bilateral economic agenda,” Robert Holleyman, president and chief executive of the Business Software Alliance, said in a statement circulated by the White House.
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 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.
Huntsman’s resignation has led to speculation that the former governor of Utah may be considering a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.