Locke Promises to Press for Human Rights as China Ambassador

Gary Locke, President Barack Obama’s pick to become U.S. ambassador to China, vowed today to raise human-rights concerns “at the highest levels” of the Chinese government.

“We have very significant concerns with China’s actions in recent months, especially the crackdowns” on artists, lawyers and bloggers, Locke told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his nomination hearing.

“I will raise human rights issues and individual cases with Chinese government officials at the highest levels,” he said in his prepared testimony.

Locke, Obama’s secretary of commerce and a former two-term Democratic governor of Washington, also pledged to push China to “do more” to curb North Korea’s “provocative behavior” in regard to nuclear weapons.

Locke also promised to make an expansion of U.S. exports to China “a big part of what I do every day as ambassador.” China is the second-biggest U.S. trading partner after Canada.

If confirmed by the Senate, Locke, 61, would be the first Chinese-American to become the top U.S. envoy to China. Locke would replace Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who resigned his post and is now exploring a potential campaign for the Republican presidential nomination next year.

No senators voiced criticism of Locke during a low-key 80-minute hearing. The committee may hold a vote on his nomination as early as June.

‘Wise Choice’

“I believe the president has made a good choice and a wise choice” in nominating Locke, said Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the committee chairman.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the committee’s most senior Republican, urged Locke to push the Chinese to increase imports of American goods and reduce the trade imbalance.

China is the U.S.’s largest foreign creditor, Lugar noted, holding about a quarter of the almost $4.5 trillion in U.S. debt owed to other nations.

Locke, who as governor doubled the state of Washington’s exports to China, said he was committed to opening up China’s economy, now the world’s second largest, surpassed only by the United States.

Still, Locke rejected the suggestion that U.S. indebtedness has weakened the U.S. negotiating hand in its relations with China. He said 70 percent of U.S. debt is held by domestic companies, with China holding only 8 percent.

No Influence

“In no way does China’s position, in any way, influence U.S. foreign policy,” he said.

Locke also was pressed to protect the interests of Taiwan, a major sticking point in U.S.-China relations.

The chief of China’s general staff, General Chen Bingde, said on a visit to Washington last week that relations between China and the U.S. will be harmed if the U.S. sells Taiwan F-16 fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin Corp.

Locke said no decision has been made on whether any arms sales will go forward.

He said the U.S. will continue to abide by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which he noted commits the U.S. “to provide a self-defense capability” for Taiwan.

Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said he feared the lack of an arms sale may leave the island “indefensible” unless progress can be made soon.

“You can be devoured if you do not have the opportunity to defend yourself,” Menendez said.

Taiwan, Cyber Attacks

The U.S. Defense Department last year proposed selling Taiwan a package of missiles, helicopters and ships valued at about $6.4 billion.

Senators also urged Locke to press the Chinese government to stop cyber attacks on U.S. government and businesses and to better protect intellectual property rights.

Kerry noted “a degree of anxiety within the Congress” over China’s currency and trade practices. After years of negotiations, he said, “the progress seems slow to a lot of folks.”

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.

“We would all agree that progress has been slow, but we have been making progress,” Locke said. He said U.S. exports to China are growing 50 percent faster than exports to the rest of the world, and that China’s currency is beginning to float more freely.

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