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.
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  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.[]

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9 thoughts on “Gary Locke to be Next US Ambassador to China. And There Was Much Rejoicing.

  1. Julen

    According to this link below, Locke didn’t learn English until he was 5. If true, this means (I assume) his mother language is Cantonese. If he hasn’t been wasting his time he should be by now completely fluent in mandarin, or at least much better than Huntsman.

    Certainly the ethnic aspect is a plus. At the very least, it will show the Chinese public once and for all that ethnic origin is not an essential part of nationality — many in the PRC keep mixing these concepts to this day.

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-President-Obama-and-Commerce-Secretary-Nominee-Gary-Locke/

    1. Julen

      Weird. In the WSJ and other articles they confirm that Mr. Locke doesn’t speak mandarin, and hardly any Cantonese. This is at odds with the announcement that was posted in the White House Website, claiming that:

      “Gary didn’t learn English until he was five, but he earned the rank of Eagle Scout, worked his way through Yale University with the help of scholarships and student loans, and got a law degree.”

      So what language was His Excellency speaking from age 2 to 5, esperanto? It looks like a poor effort of the WH to sell their guy, fortunately nobody has noticed…

      1. Stan Post author

        Yeah, that surprised me as well. I suppose it’s possible that he spoke Cantonese as a very young child and then stopped and some point, but it usually doesn’t work that way, particularly if you are being raised by two people who presumably speak that language at home.

        I had assumed he picked up Chinese at some point as well, but I guess I was wrong about that too.

    2. deldallas

      Concurred. A high-ranking USG ABC serving in China (who was a democratically-elected governor for that matter) is a major step in turning on the average China citizenís mind to the idea that the USA might really believe in the idea of a DNA-agnostic country, and that itís possibility that commonly-expressed US values actually arenít some sneaky neocolonial plot.

  2. Sam

    Well, with the “go to” guy gone, who are they going to consult with re: important china related policy question? Historitcally the ambassador position is only an operational job instead of a policy making one. And he’d lose the direct comm channel to the white house. Now everything has to go through the state dept, representing a departmental view at the best. IMO demoting Locke doesn’t signal a positive stance to enhance bilateral relations but a disappointment that not much concession has been squeezed out of china and Obama is impatient and wants more done on the ground, in his terms. Not sure that’s gonna happen though.

    1. Stan Post author

      I don’t think Locke was ever part of the China policy team anyway, so maybe the loss won’t be that big a deal. I see him more of a guy on the ground anyway.

      But yeah, will the new DOC be able to slide into the spot on the S&ED negotiating team, for example, with the same experience and authority? It’s a fair point.

      1. Sam

        If he never was in the policy making circle, then accepting him into that circle signals a step forward, and moving him further does the opposite. I think the Chinese would perceive it this way. With him in dc, Chinese perceive him as “our” guy, one who can relay messages when the useless ambassadors can’t. With him in Beijing, he’s a spy at best and should be kept off limit. I think many american politicians always get china wrong on the gesture issue, e.g., citing a few tang poems etc but out of contexts. Always make me think, hey, you tried too hard and too obvious.

  3. pug_ster

    Nominating Gary Locke is probably a good idea in light the Huntsman fiasco in the ‘Jasmine Revolution’. But these ambassadors ultimately serve the interest of the US. His career in the government seems to be a guy who is trying to do his job rather making a scene, is certainly than Huntsman who spend his early life trying to Christanize Chinese people in Taiwan. I don’t think Gary Locke has any real chance to get into elected office in the US anyways, consider Americans reaction toward his rebuttal to Bush’s state of the union address in 2003.