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Originally published March 7, 2011 at 9:35 PM | Page modified March 8, 2011 at 2:18 PM

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Obama to nominate Locke as envoy to China

President Obama plans to select Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as the next U.S. ambassador to China, replacing Jon Huntsman, who is leaving the post next month. The official announcement is expected this week.

Seattle Times business reporter

President Obama plans to select Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as the next U.S. ambassador to China, replacing Jon Huntsman, who is leaving the post next month. The official announcement is expected this week.

Many who know the former Washington governor called Locke a smart choice for a complex and critically important relationship.

Locke, 61, has established a reputation for forging ties with China in government and business for more than a decade. The son of Chinese immigrants, he was born in Seattle and became the nation's first Chinese-American governor when he was elected in 1996.

"I think he has the right temperament and the right background," said Norm Page, an attorney in Shanghai with Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine who worked closely with Locke when the two co-chaired the firm's China practice about six years ago.

"He was always very willing to state the American view of things in a clear-cut kind of way, but always with this eye toward a future that involved a very constructive relationship," Page said. "He also respects China and is very respected by the top leadership in China. Because of that solid foundation and constructive starting point, I think the lines of communication will be good."

Relations between the United States and China have many areas of friction, including the trade deficit and value of Chinese currency, intellectual property protection, military security issues and North Korea.

Locke has been dealing with many of those issues since he became commerce secretary two years ago. He was the third choice after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., withdrew their nominations.

At Davis Wright Tremaine, Locke worked as a high-level power broker between U.S. companies and the Chinese government. He helped arrange a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the United States in 2006, and later sat down for a one-on-one meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao for more than an hour inside the walls of Zhongnanhai, the central government's leadership compound in Beijing.

Huntsman, a Republican former Utah governor and Mormon missionary in China, is stepping down to explore a presidential bid.

Huntsman was criticized by Chinese officials after appearing in a location chosen for a protest in Beijing. He said he was out for a walk.

Nonetheless, Joe Borich, president of the Washington State China Relations Council and a former U.S. consul general in Shanghai, said Huntsman has been an excellent ambassador.

Unlike Huntsman, Locke does not speak Mandarin. His family spoke Taishanese, a dialect of southern China.

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But that has not diminished his popularity in China.

"Next to 'Sleepless in Seattle,' he's probably the best-known product Washington state has in China," Borich said.

The nomination, which must be confirmed by the Senate, was praised by fellow Democrats in Locke's home state.

"I can't think of a more qualified person to serve as ambassador to China than Gary Locke," Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement. "Our relationship with China is more important than ever, and Gary has the history, experience and leadership to maintain strong and friendly ties with one of our most important trading partners."

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, said he was confident Locke "will do an outstanding job in this role."

The lawmaker said the decision is particularly good for Washington state, which exported close to $10 billion in goods to China last year.

"China is our state's single largest trading partner," McDermott said. "Washington-based firms like Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and others export to China, and these exports translate to good-paying jobs. As the former governor of Washington, ... Gary will work to protect and strengthen this relationship."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Locke is "uniquely qualified" for the position. "As a former governor from a state with strong economic ties to China, Locke has had a long understanding of issues in Asia. As commerce secretary, Locke has been in many of the Obama administration's discussions with China on energy, trade, and technology piracy issues.

"This is good news for Washington state," Cantwell said, "because it will further enhance the relations between our state and China. And this is good news for the United States because Locke credentials give him the opportunity for even more frank dialogue between America and China."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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