Former Washington Gov. Locke perhaps is best known for cultivating close ties to China — and many believe that was one of the key reasons President Obama nominated him to be commerce secretary.

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Three years ago, as partner in a Seattle law firm, Gary Locke returned triumphant from a one-on-one meeting in Beijing with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Having reached an impasse with the United States on many issues, the Chinese were waiting to see who the next U.S. president would be, Locke told a Seattle business audience.

Chinese leaders looked to people like Locke to serve as a bridge to the United States, where the country often was portrayed as an economic threat and a human-rights violator.

With his clout in China, Locke became a high-level intermediary, advancing to the Chinese the notion of “the other Washington” that was friendly and open. At Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, he represented both multinational companies doing business in China and Chinese companies that wanted to invest here.

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When President Obama introduced Locke on Wednesday as the nominee for commerce secretary, the president emphasized the former governor’s experience dealing with trade issues and his background as the Yale-educated grandson of an immigrant who came to this country by steamship from China, working as a servant one mile from the governor’s mansion.

“Gary knows the American dream. He’s lived it,” Obama said. “[He] will be a trusted voice in my Cabinet, a tireless advocate for our economic competitiveness, and an influential ambassador for American industry … “

Added Locke: “It took our family 100 years to move that one mile, a journey possible only in America. Our nation’s economic success is tied directly to America continuing to lead in technology and innovation, and in exporting those products, services and ideas to nations around the globe.”

Locke, 59, was Obama’s third choice for the post. His first pick, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, withdrew after disclosures that a grand jury was investigating allegations of wrongdoing in awarding state contracts. The second pick, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., pulled out after questioning whether he could support the policies of a Democratic president.

The Commerce Department has a wide and eclectic range of responsibilities that include trade promotion, monitoring economic growth, overseeing oceans policy and directing the 2010 Census.

Locke perhaps is best known for cultivating close ties to China — and many believe that was one of the key reasons for his selection.

As the nation’s first Chinese-American governor, Locke was treated like a star when he visited China shortly after his election in 1997.

While working in the private sector, he helped orchestrate a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington state in 2006, which went smoother than Hu’s trip to D.C. In the nation’s capital, the official announcer mistakenly called Hu’s country the Republic of China — the official name of Taiwan — and a protester heckled his speech at the White House.

But what is perceived as a strength in one Washington can be a weakness in the other.

“There will be those that think he’s a China lackey,” Seattle University business professor David Reid said. “There’s a certain amount of bias in D.C. I think that will play against him. … I hope he doesn’t feel he has to defend himself to those people or demonstrate his patriotism.”

Locke’s appointment drew support from politicians, the business community and a leading environmental group.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Locke high marks for intellectual property (IP) protection, which has been a thorny issue with China for years.

“Governor Locke has a clear record of cracking down on intellectual-property theft in his home state, while advocating for enhanced global engagement as a means of improving IP enforcement, particularly with respect to China,” wrote Mark Esper, vice president of the chamber’s global IP center.

Another of his duties will be overseeing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which represents more than half of the Commerce Department’s budget.

Ocean Conservancy CEO Vikki Spruill said Locke has a good record of ocean stewardship and clean-water conservation measures. She noted that, as governor, he supported local watershed planning efforts and efforts to negotiate cleaner farming processes.

Some commerce secretaries have played major roles in developing U.S.-China ties, such as Ron Brown in 1994, who led opposition to linking China’s most-favored-nation status with human rights, and Malcolm Baldridge in the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, of Lake Stevens, said he thinks Locke’s China background will allow him to play a similar role.

“With Secretary Clinton making Asia her first overseas trip, it brings a bigger focus on the U.S.-China relationship,” Larsen said. “So I can see where the secretary of commerce position is going to play an important part in that relationship. I think Gov. Locke’s relationships that already exist in China are going to help him be a good promoter for U.S. exports to China.

“I think it’s a very unique part of his biography that fits pretty well with what seems to be what the Obama administration wants to achieve with China.”

But David Bachman, a political-science professor and China expert at the University of Washington, said he thinks Locke is unlikely to have a major influence on China policy.

“I think we are over-analyzing if we see Locke’s appointment as China-directed,” he said, noting that promoting U.S. exports to China is a tiny part of the job. “I think Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner are going to be playing much larger roles in China policy than Locke might.”

Bachman also said Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning Chinese American who heads the Energy Department, actually may have a more prominent role to play with China.

Seattle University’s Reid said Locke’s job is to “keep things going and keep relationships on an even keel” in China. “The issues are what they are. It’s good to have somebody in the position less likely to do any harm.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or

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