WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will nominate Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the son and grandson of Chinese immigrants, to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, a senior administration official said Monday. A formal announcement could come as early as Tuesday.
If confirmed by the Senate, Locke would succeed Jon Huntsman, one of the few Republicans in Obama's administration. Huntsman's recently tendered resignation is effective at the end of April, and he is eyed as a potential GOP challenger to Obama in the 2012 presidential contest.
The administration official requested anonymity to speak ahead of the formal announcement.
Locke, 61, is the first Chinese American to serve as commerce secretary. His father and grandfather were born in China.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, hours before word of his nomination began to spread, Locke touted the economic relationship he has helped build between the U.S. and China. He said U.S. exports to China had increased 34 percent last year.
Obama sees boosting U.S. exports as a way to save and create jobs as the economy continues its slow walk out of its worst slump in a generation. He has set a goal of doubling the amount of American goods that are sold to other countries within five years – an effort in which Locke has been a key cheerleader.
Locke said China is becoming more accessible to U.S. companies, though he said that progress has been slow in coming.
"We in government and the business community want more and faster progress," he told the AP. "There's still a long way to go." The U.S. trade deficit with China reached $273.1 billion last year, the largest imbalance the United States has ever recorded with any country.
Locke said that in areas such as intellectual property rights, the U.S. needs to "keep the Chinese accountable" and "constantly monitor them, and let them know that we're not just going to accept their assurances."
As the son of a Chinese immigrant, he is held in high esteem in China.
Before joining the administration, Locke worked on China issues for a Seattle-based law firm. He joined the firm after declining to seek a third term as Washington state's governor; Locke became the nation's first Chinese-American state chief executive when he was elected governor in 1996.
White House aides have been less than thrilled by Huntsman's overt interest in exploring a presidential bid next year – and possibly becoming the Republican who tries to deny a second term to Obama, the man who soon will be his former boss.
A fluent Mandarin speaker from his service as a Mormon missionary, Huntsman has earned praise from the administration. But serving a Democratic president could become an issue should he seek the GOP nomination – something Obama recently needled Huntsman about.
"I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary," the president said when he was asked about Huntsman at the White House in January.
During a Sunday talk-show appearance, Obama's chief of staff, Bill Daley, jabbed at Huntsman. Daley praised Huntsman for working closely with Obama and doing excellent work as ambassador before adding: "I'm sure he'll talk about that in the primaries."
It took Obama three tries to find his someone to be his commerce secretary.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, and later Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., each accepted job offers from Obama but then backed out – the former after the disclosure of a grand jury investigation of state contracting and the latter while citing "irresolvable conflicts" with Obama's policies.
Obama then called on Locke to fill the key Cabinet post, whose vast and jumbled portfolio includes many aspects of international trade, promoting American businesses abroad, oceans policy and the 2010 census.
ABC News first reported on Locke's pending nomination on Monday.
AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller and writers Martin Crutsinger and Julie Pace contributed to this report.