WASHINGTON >> Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is getting a new assignment: President Barack Obama plans to nominate him to become the next U.S. ambassador to China, making Locke the first Chinese-American to hold that post.
An announcement was expected this week, administration officials said. They requested anonymity to speak freely before Obama makes the nomination official.
If confirmed by the Senate, Locke would succeed Jon Huntsman, a Republican who is ending his stint as ambassador in a Democratic administration at the end of April.
Huntsman is seen as a potential GOP challenger to Obama in the 2012 presidential contest.
Locke, 61, is the first Chinese-American to serve as commerce secretary, and the Commerce Department said he would likewise be the first Chinese-American ambassador to China. Locke’s father and grandfather were born in China and settled in Washington state after emigrating to the U.S.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, hours before the news 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 increased 34 percent last year.
Obama sees boosting U.S. exports as a way to save and create jobs in an economy that is slowly coming out of the worst downturn in a generation. He has set a goal of doubling within five years the amount of American goods that are sold to other countries — an effort in which Locke has been a key cheerleader.
Despite the administration’s increased pressure on Beijing, the U.S. trade imbalance with China reached an all-time high last year — $273.1 billion.
Locke said China is becoming more accessible to U.S. companies, though 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."
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 Chinese immigrants, he is held in high esteem in China.
Before taking over at Commerce, Locke worked on China issues for a Seattle-based law firm. He joined the firm after declining, for family reasons, 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.
Huntsman, meanwhile, has won praise from the administration for his work as ambassador. But White House aides have been less than enthused by the former Utah governor’s overt interest in exploring a presidential bid next year — and possibly becoming the Republican who tries to deny Obama a second term.
Having served a Democratic president could become an issue for Huntsman should he seek the support of conservatives who influence the GOP nomination process — something Obama recently needled him 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 a White House appearance with China’s president, Hu Jintao, in January. Huntsman listened from a seat in the front row.
White House chief of staff Bill Daley piled on during a weekend talk-show appearance. Daley praised Huntsman for doing excellent work as ambassador then added, "I’m sure he’ll talk about that in the primaries."
It took Obama three tries to fill the commerce secretary’s job.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, and then-Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., each accepted offers from Obama but later 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.