WASHINGTON - A little more than a century ago, Gary Locke's grandfather moved from China to Olympia, where he found a job as a houseboy in exchange for English lessons.
In a ceremony at the White House on Wednesday, the former two-term Washington governor was officially nominated to become the next U.S. ambassador to China, promising to be a “devoted and passionate advocate for America, the country where I was born and raised.”
Locke remembered his father, who 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,” Locke said.
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If he’s confirmed by the Senate, Locke, who’s been commerce secretary for two years, said he would work to open up more Chinese markets for American businesses.
And Locke, 61, told President Barack Obama that he would help him manage “one of America’s most critical and complex diplomatic and economic and strategic relationships.”
Locke faces a diplomatic task on the home front, too.
He said that he, his wife, Mona – a former Seattle television reporter – and their three children were excited about the move to Beijing, “to varying degrees.”
As someone who moved around a lot as a child, Obama said, he tried to commiserate with Locke’s eldest daughter, Emily, who turned 14 Wednesday.
“I assured her it would be great 10 years from now,” Obama said. “Right now it’s probably a drag.”
Obama called Locke “one of our nation’s most respected and admired public servants.”
The president noted that Locke, as the nation’s first Chinese-American governor, “worked tirelessly to attract jobs and businesses to Washington state, and he doubled exports to China.”
And as commerce secretary, Locke oversaw the 2010 Census, a project “that ended on time and under budget, returning $2 billion to American taxpayers,” Obama said.
Now, as “the grandson of a Chinese immigrant who went on to live the American dream,” Locke is the right person to continue U.S. cooperation with China, the president said.
“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.
Obama nominated Locke to replace Jon Huntsman, whose resignation is effective at the end of April. Huntsman is one of a few Republicans in the Obama administration and is said to be weighing a bid for his party’s presidential nomination to challenge Obama in 2012.
Locke said he’ll be leaving “one of the best jobs I’ve ever had” as commerce secretary but that he was “deeply humbled and honored” to be chosen for the new position.
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.
Locke developed a strong relationship with businesses – notably Boeing and Microsoft – during his two terms as governor.
Both companies, their executives and others connected to them made substantial donations to Locke’s statewide campaigns.
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.
“His experience as the secretary of commerce, the governor of Washington state, and in various positions in the private sector will serve him well in helping to manage the United States’ important and complex relationship with China,” said Boeing CEO Jim McNerney in a statement.
Gov. Chris Gregoire used Twitter to react: “Good for our country,” she tweeted. “Great for our state.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6000 firstname.lastname@example.org, blog.thenewstribune.com/politics