Gary Locke to be Next US Ambassador to China. And There Was Much Rejoicing.

March 8, 2011

Obama will be pitching a perfect game when it comes to ambassadors to China if he goes with current Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to fill the shoes of Jon Huntsman. An excellent pick for several reasons.

Let us count the ways, not necessarily in order to importance:

1. Locke is currently the Secretary of Commerce.

So what? Commerce is not exactly the top of the prestige list when it comes to important cabinet positions, but it’s still a top job in the executive branch of the US government. The Department of Commerce has a wide range of responsibilities, including a great deal of oversight in issues important to US-China bilateral relations.

What about Ambassador to China? As far as ambassadorial posts go, this is definitely a big one in terms of importance. At the end of the day, though, it’s still an ambassador’s job, which entails management of a fraction of the staff of an agency, fewer responsibilities, and the danger of being completely marginalized by the White House when it comes to policy.

In short, I think it’s fair to say that Gary Locke would be taking a symbolic step down to take the new job. The fact that Obama would make such an appointment suggests, among other things, that the White House sees US-China bilateral relations as supremely important these days.1

Locke’s appointment is therefore great signaling by the White House to Beijing.

2. Locke is Chinese-American/American born Chinese (or whatever other label you’d prefer to use).

The man is a first generation American with direct ties to China. As good as Huntsman’s resume was (the language skills, etc.), I think it never hurts to have an ambassador with ethnic ties to his post. It’s not a litmus test or anything, but if it helps, and I believe it does, then why not?

FYI, Locke’s name is ??? (his father is from Guangdong and his mother is from Hong Kong).

3. He knows the issues, better than Huntsman when he got the job.

This is very important. Here is a guy than can hit the ground running fast. As Secretary of Commerce, Locke has been one of the “go to” guys for bilateral negotiations, including the US-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue, which has been a primary vehicle for bilateral talks during the Obama Administration, an upgrade from the previous JCCT mechanism.

This is a guy who has literally sat in on some of the most important bilateral meetings of the past couple of years. It would be difficult to find anyone with equal seniority and a similar grasp of the issues, not to mention personal relationships with the folks over here in China.

4. More signaling: economic issues are emphasized by this pick.

Obama could have gone with a military/defense guy for this job. Remember that Clinton tapped Admiral Joseph Prueher for the job (he served in between Jim Sasser and Clark Randt), in part because he had been commander of the US Navy’s Pacific Command.

Locke is the Secretary of Commerce, so the signal here is that economic and trade issues are the key to the bilateral relationship moving ahead. I couldn’t agree more.

What are those issues? Here’s a short list:

  • Trade balance (China surplus, US deficit);
  • Currency dispute;
  • Export controls;
  • Intellectual property rights infringement;
  • Other trade disputes (rare earth quotas, indigenous innovation, various anti-dumping cases);
  • Cleantech and environmental issues; and
  • Foreign investment (barriers going both ways).

Just take a look at that list. If you know anything about the Commerce Department, you would know that it has specific jurisdiction in a lot of these areas. Here are a couple of relevant agencies that comprise the DOC:

  • International Trade Administration (ITA) – broad authority over trade enforcement and international issues, export initiatives, etc.
  • US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) – no explanation necessary

The most current post on the DOC blog is about Secretary Locke’s speech at a patent conference entitled “Asia-Pacific Patent Cooperation in the 21st Century.” To me, that says a lot right there.

5. Locke used to be an FDI lawyer.

What, you don’t think this is important? While I admit that Locke’s government background as Secretary of Commerce and two-time governor of the State of Washington are more important, I always like it when a fellow foreign direct investment lawyer gets the job — Clark Randt was also an FDI lawyer. You may disagree with me, but I think the job of an FDI lawyer exposes one to some of the most pressing bilateral issues of the day. Any way you look at it, Locke’s job as head of the China group for Davis, Wright & Tremaine was valuable experience.

OK, enough cheerleading?

UPDATE: At least one person agrees with me.

  1. It’s also possible that Obama wants to move someone else into the Commerce job, and this is a convenient way to move Locke out of the way. I haven’t heard anything like that, though.[]