Locke is a noted expert on Chinese-American relations, which are sometimes strained by complaints about China’s human-rights abuses and allegations the country’s leaders were manipulating its currency to maintain a large trade surplus with countries like the U.S.
Locke, whose grandfather immigrated to the United States as a teenager and worked for a family that lived by the Washington state capitol, was the first Chinese-American to be elected governor of a state. After serving two terms, he joined a law firm, where he was an active promoter of trade between China and the United States.
Some supporters of a closer relationship with China had worried President Obama may take a more aggressive stance than the Bush administration in pushing China to improve its human-rights record.
As a candidate, Obama also criticized the country for its monetary policy, saying he believed China was manipulating its currency to drive exports, a point Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner reiterated during his recent confirmation hearings.
That charge drew complaints from Chinese officials, but since then relations appear to have improved. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spent her first overseas visit in China, where she sought to build a greater level of cooperation on climate change and encouraged Chinese officials to continue to invest in U.S. Treasury securities, noting the links between the two economies.
Observers say in picking Locke to run Commerce, Obama sent another signal of the importance his administration will place on its relationship with China.
“Coming from Washington state, the most trade-dependent state in the country, he understands the importance of international economic engagement, and has a record of working to open up markets for U.S. products,” said Tim Punke, a former trade official in the Clinton administration.
“At the same time, he is a well-known China expert. U.S.-China issues are going to be at the forefront of our international economic agenda in the next four years,” said Punke, who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Washington state as a lobbyist for Monument Policy Group.
Locke “understands the importance of international trade,” said Myron Brilliant, senior vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The pick, he added, is a further indication of the value the new administration will put on its relationship with China, regardless of Obama’s previous rhetoric.
“When you are running for public office, you might say one thing, but when you govern it’s a different deal,” Brilliant said.
Executives hope Locke can use his connections to make inroads on updating trade policy with China to provide, for example, greater protection of American corporations’ intellectual property rights.
John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, which promotes trade between the two countries, said Locke was well-respected in China, which could help make inroads in bringing down market barriers to American companies that still exist in China.
“He’s got that knowledge of the importance of the market and the issues that prevent it perhaps from growing even more,” Frisbie said.
Obama said Locke would be an “influential ambassador” for American industry.
After two earlier nominees withdrew, business leaders said they were mostly interested in seeing someone confirmed for the Commerce slot who often plays the chief cheerleading role for American businesses.
Obama’s first choice, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), withdrew from consideration, citing the complication of a federal investigation into how political donors ended up with a lucrative state contract.
Pick No. 2, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), then took himself out of the running due to irreconcilable differences over spending issues with the new Democratic administration.
But if he is confirmed, Locke will play a bigger role than cheerleader for businesses. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration represents between 55 and 60 percent of the Commerce Department, according to the Ocean Conservancy.
That group praised Locke for directing money to local watershed planning efforts and creating a forum designed to encourage farmers to use more water-friendly farming techniques.
“This is a good, solid pick of a coastal governor,” said Tim McHugh, a spokesman for the Ocean Conservancy.