Locke as ambassador to China? Business leaders see a boon

They expect great things for the state if the former governor is confirmed, citing his high standing in China along with his connection to President Obama.

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Commerce Secretary Gary Locke appears with President Barack Obama after his nomination as the U.S. ambassador to China. At left is Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

They expect great things for the state if the former governor is confirmed, citing his high standing in China along with his connection to President Obama.

As the nation’s most trade-dependent state, Washington stands to gain economic leverage if the Senate approves the appointment of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke as U.S. ambassador to China. By every measure, his experience as a two-term Washington state governor and power broker for improved trade relations with China is not lost on the state’s business establishment.

Many of the region’s top business leaders see that experience as a plus.

“While Gary Locke will be representing the entire United States in his role as Ambassador to China, he is uniquely familiar with Washington state’s strong cultural and economic ties to China,” said Steve Leahy, past president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

“He was an incredible bridge between Washington state and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) when he served as our governor, and then when he worked on behalf of our major companies as partner in charge of the China Practices Group for Davis, Wright Tremaine,” Leahy said. As governor, Locke led annual trade negotiations between the U.S. and China and was instrumental in organizing a visit to Washington by China’s President Hu Jintao in 2006.

Improving Washington-China trade relations is seen by the state’s political leadership as critical.

“China is our most important trading partner,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. “Gary knows this well, and that’s why as governor, he worked with Asian leaders to open up markets for Washington state products. And as governor during Washington’s tech boom, he understands what innovative companies need to succeed at home and across the world.”

Last year, China’s economy surpassed Japan’s to become the world’s second largest. The People’s Republic of China is now the second-biggest U.S. trading partner after Canada. As ambassador, Locke would have to deal with a $273 billion trade deficit with China — a 20.4 percent increase from 2009 and the biggest U.S. bilateral trade gap.

“Gary understands what businesses large and small need to create jobs, and throughout his career he has fought to make sure they had the support to succeed,” Murray said. “I look forward to his Senate confirmation and working with him to ensure our nation’s leadership with China helps our economy, businesses, and farmers in Washington State.”

Joseph Borich, executive director of the Washington State China Relations Council, agrees with Murray. “Locke’s experience as governor of the state of Washington and as the current Secretary of Commerce would make him fully qualified to manage the economic relations aspect of our relations with China, at a minimum.”

“President Obama’s selection of Gary Locke as the new Ambassador to China sends a message that America appreciates and values its relationship with China and wants the relationship to continue to grow. Locke is highly regarded in China, and his appointment will signal that the Administration is attaching as much, if not more, importance to trade and economic issues as it did under Ambassador Jon Huntsman.”

William Stafford, outgoing president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, accompanied Locke on his first business and trade mission as King County Executive in 1995 and sees his nomination as very significant for the state’s trade relations with China. “Gary was the first star graduate of our school of international trade,” Stafford quipped.

“While he’ll represent the nation and be an honest broker, he won’t need six months or a year of training to be familiar with Washington products such as Microsoft, aerospace, and agriculture. He’s already put Washington state in the spotlight in the China Daily.”

Stafford believes Locke’s appointment would be important for the state’s future business dealings with the Asian nation following his service as U.S. ambassador.

“When he returns to our state, he will have met all of China’s future leaders and have a wide portfolio of contacts that will be invaluable for our state’s trade relations,” Stafford said.

The importance that China’s leadership attaches to the closer ties with Washington State that Locke helped to forge is mirrored in President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit.

“President Hu privately expressed that the reception at Bill Gates’ house was more memorable than the subsequent White House dinner on a recent visit to this country,” said Donald Hellmann, professor of political science at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

“The office of the American ambassador is the prism through which United States businesses and diplomats look to see China. Having the former first family of our state and prominent member of the business and professional establishment in Washington assures both access to and the view through that prism will be readily available to interested parties from the Pacific Northwest,” Hellmann said.

That access would surely benefit the state’s top businesses such as Microsoft and Boeing, he added. “Boeing has long been one of the largest American exporters to China, providing a solid foundation on which Secretary Locke can build for the future. Having an informed friend in high places assures that the flexibility necessary to cope with the inevitable ups and downs in our bilateral relationships is likely to be accessible to Washington businesses in our embassy and consulates.”

Bob Watt, former vice president of government and community relations for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, agrees. “Having Ambassador Locke confirmed and in place in China will be a wonderful thing for all of us in Washington State. He will, of course be representing the whole country, but his in-depth knowledge and deep love for the people and products of Washington State will surely be helpful as we go forward.”

Darryl Johnson, former U.S. Ambassador to Thailand and Deputy Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said that President Obama’s decision to appoint Locke as the nation’s top envoy to China was an inspired choice. “Locke has it all in terms of representing the U.S. in Beijing, and his nomination underlines the importance of this relationship.”

“Given his experience as the popular governor of a medium-size state, he knows the complexity of the issues that he must confront. He must know the views and the positions of China, a country that is now the second largest economy in the world, and one that is still growing at a rapid pace, and one with which the U.S. has a very large and complex relationship,” Johnson said. “Fortunately, he has traveled to China many times and knows personally the current leadership.”

“An effective ambassador also must know his boss and his mandate. Locke has served in President Obama’s Cabinet for two years, a role that has given him unique access to the President and other senior policymakers. In addition to representing the President, he must represent the government and people of the United States,” he said.

“Finally, he must manage a very large embassy which is responsible for reporting what is going on in the country and representing the U.S. in the wide range of issues that require the active participation of both countries. Secretary Locke will represent all of us in a way that makes us proud.”

David Bachman, chair of the China studies program at the UW Jackson School of International Studies, views Locke’s appointment as historic and critical for expanding ties between Washington state and China, a key ingredient of which involves promoting trade, expanding business investment, and increasing exchanges of all sorts.

“Gary Locke’s nomination to serve as U.S. ambassador to China is highly symbolic. His career has been one of many firsts: first Chinese-American governor of a U.S. state; first Chinese-American secretary of commerce; and now, assuming his confirmation, the first Chinese-American ambassador to China, and perhaps any Asian society. It speaks to an America open to hard work and talent, and at least for his period of service in Beijing, brings a family history full circle,” said Bachman.

“The U.S.-China bilateral relationship is probably the most important relationship in the world at this time, and likely will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. It is a relationship characterized by extensive cooperation and conflict, and one that will have profound effects on the global future,” he added.

“The post of U.S. ambassador must rank as one of the most challenging appointments in the U.S. foreign service. Gary Locke’s appointment speaks to the trust and high expectations that the president has in his ability to represent the U.S. in China and play a significant role in attempting to maximize the areas of cooperation and minimize the areas of conflict,” Bachman said. “While he is ambassador, delegations from Washington state will likely find a very warm welcome at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, which also might help open doors in China.”

Locke’s popularity in China also gives him a unique advantage in promoting positive U.S.-China relations, said Borich. “He enjoys near rock-star status in China. If there are four things that the Chinese know about Washington state, they are Boeing, Microsoft, 'Sleepless in Seattle,' and Gary Locke. China has been privy to a relatively unbroken line of highly competent U.S. ambassadors since relations were normalized, and Locke will continue that trend.”

The Senate is expected to confirm Gary Locke’s role within 60 days of his March 9 nomination.

This article is reprinted with permission from the International Examiner.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.