News reports from the East Coast say former Washington Gov. Gary Locke is headed back to China, the homeland of his ancestors and a place he visited several times on trade missions for the state. Now serving as the U.S. Commerce secretary, Locke is reported to be President Obama's choice as new ambassador to China.
Locke was the first Chinese American governor in the country, and China is Washington's biggest export market and second-largest trading partner after Canada.
Locke, a third-generation American, becomes the first such ambassador to China, according to some reports that also say an announcement is coming Tuesday. Locke replaces Jon Huntsman, a potential Republican candidate for president who is a former Utah governor.
Paul Isaki, Locke's former chief of staff in the Governor’s Office and also his foreign trade representative, said Locke's confirmation in the Senate should not be a problem. Isaki also said the nomination for ambassador – assuming it goes as reported – is a good one for the United States and China, because Locke has made trade trips there and had to learn how China worked.
"The good thing for both us – meaning the United States and Washington – and China is that Gary has been dealing with China for a long time. He's a very familiar, trusted and respected person among Chinese leadership at the highest levels," Isaki said late Monday afternoon from his Seattle home.
Isaki went on a trade mission with former Gov. Booth Gardner to China in 1986 and was Locke's trade representative late in the latter governor's second term, which ended in 2004. More recently Isaki was at the Port of Seattle and this year finished up a stint for the state Commerce Department helping to develop a memorandum of understanding that will guide the U.S. and state commerce agencies’ relationship as part of Obama’s initiative to dramatically boost U.S. exports.
Isaki said Locke was "very helpful in helping to establish Washington as the first state to have a formal agreement with the Commerce Department on the export initiative." Gov. Chris Gregoire followed Locke's path to China with a series of trade missions. Gregoire's spokeswoman Karina Shagren said their staff had heard the reports of Locke's pending nomination but had not gotten official word.
China accounted for $9.1 billion of the roughly $51.7 billion in state exports during 2009 and that amount grew to $10.3 billion in 2010 when total exports reached $52.3 billion, according to this one-page state Commerce Department fact sheet on trade.
As diplomatic representative for the U.S., Locke will have a role that encompasses far more than trade – "everything from currency valuation to China industrial policy," as Isaki put it. "He's well suited to that. He's had a kind of complementary role for the president of the U.S. as a member of his cabinet. But mostly I think that he is a known quantity and highly respected It is a very, very good thing for the United States and us, because (the U.S. and China) are going through some difficult times," Isaki said.
Isaki also said Locke had managed to take his experiences and transform his career after serving as governor and now appears to be doing it again.
State Commerce Department spokeswoman Penny Thomas said Washington's largest trading partner is Canada with two-way trade amounting to $28.7 billion in 2010, followed by $26.38 billion in two-way trade with China. Japan is the third-largest export market for the state, and aerospace products and parts are the state's largest overall export, according to the state Commerce web site.