Barack Obama

Gary Locke the perfect man for Beijing post

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am

At first glance, US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke's nomination to be the next ambassador to China would appear to be a demotion. His present job, although not the most glamorous in President Barack Obama's cabinet, is still important. With 142,000 staff and a budget of US$10.2 billion at his command, he is in charge of promoting economic growth at a time when his country is struggling to rise above the financial doldrums. To be now made a diplomat after reaching such a political height, and be sent halfway around the world with a young family to Beijing, could be seen as an imposition.

In reality, it is anything but. As ambassadorial posts go, there is none more significant to the US than heading the embassy in Beijing. China is now the world's second-biggest economy, the US' largest export market and its most prominent trading partner after Canada. The booming Chinese economy is crucial to Obama's aim of doubling exports by 2014 to create jobs.

It is also a position crucial to smoothing the strains in the relationship. China's surging growth, rising global prominence and increasing military strength worry Washington and its Asian allies. That has led to a build-up of militaries in the western Pacific, creating the potential for conflict. There were tensions last year over Taiwan, the value of the yuan, human rights and Tibet, to name only the most prominent; while President Hu Jintao's summit with Obama in Washington in January engendered trust and was hailed by both sides as a great success, those problems have not gone away.

Never before has China been so important to the US. Its ambassadors have come from diplomatic, intelligence, military, legal and political backgrounds. Locke straddles two of those, being a lawyer and two-times state governor, but he is the first cabinet-level official to be tapped for the post. That is proof of Beijing's standing in Washington.

He is perfect for the job. Like the incumbent, Jon Huntsman, and several previous ambassadors, he is a Putonghua speaker. China takes gestures seriously and Obama's choice of a first-generation Chinese-American - his father was from Guangdong and his mother from Hong Kong - sets the right tone. But those are not his biggest strengths, nor where his worth to the relationship most lies.

Locke knows the issues intimately, having been integral to bilateral negotiations since Obama took office. No one of his seniority has sat in on as many meetings on Sino-US matters or has as good a grasp of them. His leading of trade delegations to China since the 1990s has given him great cachet with Chinese officials and businesspeople; he has had personal meetings with Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. That he is from Washington, a state perhaps closer to Asia than most others, helps.

Obama's choice of Locke shows he believes trade and economic issues are the most important facet of American relations with China. Among them are the currency dispute, trade balance, intellectual property rights, export controls and foreign investment. The secretary is fluent with them all, but also conversant with the full gamut of diplomatic and political realities. Being able to talk frankly with Chinese officials enables him to further understanding, build confidence and ease strains.

They are important skills given the nations' record of unstable ties. US senators who have the final say in his approval have to take these, not his political affiliation to the Democratic Party, into account. Locke is, after all, the worthiest of candidates.