US Senate confirms Locke as China ambassador

Gary Locke becomes the first Chinese-American to hold the prestigious and difficult diplomatic post.

Washington: Former US commerce secretary Gary Locke won unanimous Senate confirmation on Wednesday as ambassador to Beijing, becoming the first Chinese-American to hold the prestigious and difficult diplomatic post.

Locke, whose grandfather came from China to the United States on a steamboat, promised during his smooth confirmation hearings to be a forceful advocate for human rights and for US businesses.

The new envoy, 61, succeeds Republican former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who left Beijing some three months ago and has mounted a run against former boss President Barack Obama in the November 2012 elections.

Locke takes over at a time of tensions in US-China relations, which have been fraught over a range of disputes including Beijing`s export-driven economic policies, growing military spending and human rights record.

And US lawmakers, locked in an angry debate over cash-strapped Washington`s debt, have increasingly painted China`s status as the country`s largest foreign creditor as a source of concern.

Senators approved Locke by voice vote.

He grew up in Seattle`s public housing projects and worked his way through Yale University, eventually becoming a prosecutor and the governor of Washington state. He had been commerce secretary since 2009.

He said during his Senate confirmation hearings that he would use his personal story to reach out to China`s people, but not shy away from sensitive issues like his "vigorous disagreement" with Beijing`s leaders on human rights.

"The protection and the promotion of liberty and freedom are fundamental tenets of US foreign policy, and if confirmed, I will clearly and firmly advocate for upholding universal rights in China," Locke said.

Locke, pointing to his work in Obama`s cabinet, said he would also fight for US businesses by pressing for protection of intellectual property and for the right of foreign firms to compete for government contracts.

Under questioning by senators, Locke said he would put a top priority on non-proliferation and that Beijing "can, definitely, and must do more" to rein in North Korea -- whose reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il recently visited China.

Senators also voiced concerns about China`s military strength against Taiwan and the value of its currency, which critics accuse Beijing of keeping artificially low to boost exports at the expense of US firms.

Locke recognised that China has let the yuan appreciate but said: "We, of course, think that it would float more and faster."

At the time of his nomination in March, China had welcomed the prospects of his arrival in Beijing.

"China-US relations are highly important. We hope the new US ambassador to China will play a positive role in promoting greater development in bilateral relations," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

After his arrival in the United States, Locke`s grandfather worked for a family as their house-boy in return for English lessons.

"China is a nation they would hardly recognise from their childhoods," Locke, who has travelled frequently to China, said of his ancestors.

"It`s a country filled with ultra-modern cities, where hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. The administration welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China," Locke said.

"But this new status comes with important responsibilities. This administration seeks to engage China on regional and global affairs to advance international peace and stability in ways consistent with prevailing international norms, rules and institutions," he said.

Locke`s confirmation came as Chinese state-run media reported that Beijing has demanded that the United States stop spy plane flights near the Chinese coast, saying they have "severely harmed" trust between the two countries.

The comments came after Taiwan media reported two Chinese fighter jets attempted to scare off an American U2 reconnaissance plane that was collecting intelligence on China while flying along the Taiwan strait in late June.

Bureau Report