By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he had chosen Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, replacing Jon Huntsman, a Republican who is mulling a run for the presidency.
Locke, a Chinese-American whose grandfather emigrated to the United States, has criticized China for not honoring promises to open its market.
His appointment will require approval by the Senate, which is likely to use the confirmation process to drill Locke about the Obama administration's policies toward China.
Locke was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as secretary of commerce, and the White House said it expected a successful confirmation process for his new post. Locke, who would be the first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing, does not speak Mandarin, only a few words of Taishanese.
"In replacing Ambassador Huntsman, I can think of nobody who is more qualified than Gary Locke," Obama told reporters.
"More than 100 years ago, Gary's grandfather left China on a steamboat bound for America, where he worked as a domestic servant in Washington state. A century later his grandson will return to China as America's top diplomat."
Huntsman steps down on April 30 and is considering joining the field of Republicans vying to challenge Obama in the 2012 election.
A former governor of Utah, Huntsman has set himself publicly against the ruling Chinese Communist Party's efforts to stamp out dissent three times in three weeks.
Locke is a also a former governor -- of Washington state, which has close economic ties with China thanks to big corporate residents such as Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp.
The White House did not offer a timetable for replacing Locke at Commerce or comment on potential successors.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, outgoing Google Inc. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, Symantec Corp. chairman John Thompson, former Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Kindler, and Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, are reportedly being considered.
Kirk declined to comment about a possible move.
Locke has not shied away from criticizing Beijing. He said in February that U.S. companies had a variety of concerns about China's trade practices and chided China for not delivering on its promises.
"As Commerce Secretary, I've helped open up foreign markets for American businesses so they can create more jobs right here in America," he said during the White House announcement.
"I'm eager to continue that work in China and to help you, Mr. President, manage one of America's most critical and complex diplomatic, economic, and strategic relationships."
Obama had kind words for Huntsman, which Republican rivals could use against him if he opts to run for the 2012 presidential nomination.
"Jon has been an outstanding advocate for this administration and for this country," Obama said. "(He) has helped to strengthen our critical relationship with the Chinese government and the Chinese people."
The world's two biggest economies have sought to steady relations after tensions throughout 2010 over human rights, Taiwan, Tibet and the value of the yuan.
Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the White House in January, a summit that both sides called a success in nurturing more mutual trust.
The US-China Business Council, which represents corporations that do business in China, welcomed the choice.
"Secretary Locke's leadership roles in business and government, combined with his recent success in strengthening U.S.-China commercial relations, makes him ideally suited to be a strong and effective ambassador," said Muhtar Kent, the group's chairman, who is also chief executive of Coca-Cola Co.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Caren Bohan, Thomas Ferraro, Doug Palmer and Michael Martina; Editing by Paul Simao)