Hoping to make China more friendly to American business, President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated as his top envoy to Beijing Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American to serve in that diplomatically and commercially important assignment.
Locke is well-versed in the Chinese trade policies that have frustrated American businesses trying to sell their products in the huge and growing Asian power. He's led delegations of U.S. companies on dozens of trade missions abroad, including to China, where U.S. exports were up 34 percent last year.
"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," Obama said as he announced Locke's nomination.
Underscoring the critical nature of the relationship between the U.S. and China, Obama was flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ceremony in the White House Diplomatic Room.
Locke drew on his compelling family history in accepting the nomination. His grandfather first came to America to work as a houseboy in a Washington home in exchange for English lessons. His father, who also was born in China and moved to the U.S. as a teenager, died in January.
"I know that if he were still alive, it would be one of his proudest moments to see his son named as the United States ambassador to his ancestral homeland," said Locke, as his wife and three young children looked on.
If confirmed by the Senate, Locke would replace Ambassador Jon Huntsman, who leaves China in April. Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah, has overtly signaled his intention to run against Obama in the 2012 election, a move that has irritated many in the White House.
The president lauded Huntsman as an "outstanding advocate for this administration" _ praise the White House knows full well could hurt Huntsman with Republican primary voters.
Locke, a soft-spoken 61-year-old, is popular in China, say those who have traveled there with him. During his more than 20 trips to China over the past 20 years, Locke has built a relationship with many government officials, including President Hu Jintao and China's business community.
As ambassador, Locke will be tasked with managing the U.S. relationship with a country Obama frequently cites as America's chief economic rival. Administration officials, including Locke, have pushed China to reform policies that restrict the ability of American companies to export to China, and have strongly condemned Chinese efforts to undervalue its currency in order to make its goods cheaper.
The U.S.-China relationship stretches well beyond economics. The U.S. needs Chinese support on a range of foreign policy matters, from nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea to peacekeeping efforts in Sudan. Complicating the relationship is China's poor record on issues including human rights and intellectual property theft. Particularly on human rights, the Obama administration has struggled to strike the right tone in making clear China must do better without voicing strident disapproval that would anger the Chinese.
The White House said there was no timetable for replacing Locke, who is the first member of Obama's cabinet to leave the administration.
Locke developed a strong relationship with businesses during his two terms as governor of Washington, which is home to several high-tech companies, including Boeing and Microsoft.
Both companies, their executives and others connected to them made substantial donations to Locke's statewide campaigns: Microsoft and donors connected to it gave at least $90,000, almost all for Locke's 2000 race, and Boeing and people linked to it donated at least $30,000, with most of that also for Locke's re-election campaign.
Locke reported holding up to $250,000 worth of Microsoft stock in a financial disclosure statement he filed after his Cabinet nomination; he divested the stock after being confirmed for the Cabinet.
Microsoft and Boeing both have a strong interest in America's economic relationship with China. In January, Boeing finalized a $19 billion deal to sell 200 airplanes to China. Microsoft has advocated for greater enforcement of intellectual property rights in China, estimating that only 1 in 10 customers using Microsoft products in that country is actually paying for them.