China’s Friend in Obama’s Cabinet

By William Hawkins l March 18, 2009

Governor Gary Locke               Locke with Hu Jintao                Locke and Obama


Gary Locke has been nominated by President Barack Obama to be Secretary of Commerce. This post requires that its holder think in national terms, but it is not clear from Locke’s record that he is inclined to do so. He became Governor of Washington State in 1997, at a time when globalization was all the rage. There was then a flood of predictions that the nation-state would “evaporate” by the turn of the century, superseded from above by global institutions and disintegrating from below as divergent groups pursued their own private interests. Ricardo Petrella, director of science and technology forecasting for the European Community, claimed, “The real decision-making powers of the future…will be transnational companies in alliance with city-regional governments.” Locke worked hard to fill this role.

Locke worked diligently with the publicly obscure Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER), a statutory, public private partnership composed of governors, legislators, governments, and businesses in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington along with the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and the Yukon Territory. Yet, the little known PNWER is the only regional planning organization set up by state statutes to deal with “transboundary” policy and planning. It was established in 1991. This year, PNWER will hold its 19th Annual Summit in Boise, Idaho. In addition to the state and provincial governments, private sector members, counties, economic development commissions, industry associations and similar entities are members. PNWER takes great pride in proclaiming that if it were a nation, it would be the 12th ranked country in the world based on its economy.

The region also thinks of itself as the “gateway to China” in large part because of its transnational corporations ranging from Microsoft to Starbucks and the role its ports play in the transport of goods across the Pacific. Unfortunately for the rest of the United States, the movement of products through the Northwest ports has been largely one-way. Trade with China, the focus of Locke’s concern, both as Governor and as a private lawyer, has been running 5-1 in China’s favor. In 2007, the last year before the recession, the U.S. exported $65.2 billion worth of products to China, while importing $321.4 billion worth of Chinese goods. This lop-sided pattern created a U.S. trade deficit that sent $1.5 trillion dollars into Beijing’s coffers between 2000 and 2008; a drain that has contributed to America’s deep plunge into recession.

From the standpoint of those who work in the ports from Portland to Vancouver, it doesn’t matter which direction the trade is flowing, so the talk is always of trade being good in the aggregate. The fact that imports close American factories in the interior of the country and put more people out of work than are employed at the ports is not the concern of those only oriented towards their own region.

Governor Locke took many trips to China to promote the interests of regional business firms, and has continued to do so since becoming a partner in the China practice group of the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm. He has always stressed in public that he was trying to help American firms sell more goods in China. But most of the trade deficit with China is the result of American firms relocating operations or outsourcing work to China, so helping American business expand in China has not been beneficial to the United States economy on balance.

In a Sept. 8, 2006 interview with the Seattle Times, Locke told business reporter Kristi Helm, “I believe it’s in the interests of the United States politically and economically to forge a strong partnership with China. If the Chinese can’t buy U.S. products, they’ll buy them from European countries.” But the Chinese are free to buy a wide range of American-made consumer goods, they just don’t do so. There is only one category of goods that Beijing can’t buy, and that is strategic technology that would be of use to their military expansion. China wants these export controls lifted. Li Ruogu, President of the Export-Import Bank of China, has suggested how Americans could improve trade with China. “They should concentrate on sectors like aerospace and then sell those things to us and we would spend billions on this”—to the great benefit of the Chinese air force and missile command.

As U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Locke would be in charge of many of these export controls. Under the Bush administration, Commerce relaxed some controls on “dual use” items under pressure by corporate lobbyists from The National Foreign Trade Council, the Business Roundtable, and the Chamber of Commerce. Among the items taken off the list were aircraft engines, ball bearings, machine tools, and virtual-reality training systems. A March 9 story in Defense News wondered whether “illegal” copies of a power plant sold “legally” by Honeywell for use in Chinese civilian helicopter might not end up in military attack helicopters. There is every reason to believe that Locke will be open to future pleas from these transnational business interests to put private profits ahead of national security.

Locke can do this with a clear conscience because he does not think of China as a security threat even as it builds advanced weapons designed to hit American targets and forms alliances with every rogue state on the planet. Locke has developed close personal ties with Beijing’s leaders. He helped arrange Chinese President Hu Jintao’s April 2006 visit to the U.S., a trip that included stops at Boeing and Microsoft. He followed this up later in the year with a meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing. Locke has also been awarded an honorary doctorate from Peking University. Kristi Helm has reported that these meetings reflect “a desire by China’s leaders to cultivate allies at a time when political relations between the United States and China have soured, observers said.”

Locke’s law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, is a sustaining member of the Washington State China Relations Council, which bills itself as “the oldest non-governmental statewide trade association in the United States dealing specifically with China.” Founded in 1979, the Council claims it “is the principal voice for promoting Washington State as the leading gateway to China.” Gov. Locke told the Council in a 2003 speech, “We have such a successful trade relationship with China because they are more than just trade partners to us. We are blessed with a sizable population of Chinese-Americans who make countless daily contributions to the very high quality of life in our state.” He went on to tell of his personal ties to China:

“When Chinese people like my grandfather first arrived here, they struggled for both survival and acceptance. They did the hardest and most humble jobs. They worked as gardeners and laborers and builders. They helped build our railroads and fished the salmon off our coast. Today, our Chinese-American citizens are lawyers, engineers, software designers, artists, educators, and community and government leaders.

Our culture has been partly shaped and continues to be influenced by the arts, history, music and ethic of China. Our cuisine and our traditions have been influenced by China. And now our developing patterns of international trade and investment are being shaped by our growing friendship with China. The benefits are mutual for millions of people on both sides of the Pacific.”

The next year, at the Seattle World Affairs Council, Locke again stressed that he saw more than economics involved in the U.S.-China relationship. He told the audience, “Strong trade partnerships lead to strong economic alliances—and ultimately political alliances. China is an economic and growing political force on the global stage. It is in America’s best interests – first and foremost politically and secondarily economically – to continue to nurture our trade relationship, cultural ties and political alignments with China.” Locke exhibits a much more benign view of the Beijing regime than is warranted by the reality of the Chinese dictatorship’s often brutal policies both at home and abroad.

In January, 2009, Locke served as the moderator at a high-profile Beijing conference sponsored by the National Committee on United States-China Relations. According to its website, the NCUSCR was founded in 1966 when “a remarkable group of people decided to take on the challenge of shaping American policy toward China into one that was in the best long term interest of this country and of educating Americans about China, anticipating the time when the door between these two countries would reopen.” In 1966, China was still ruled by Mao Zedong, the bloodiest tyrant of the 20th century. Yet, for some, the romance of the Middle Kingdom commands an allegiance that runs on its own accord.

Four decades later, the door has been opened for China to expand to world power status. Beijing’s rise has been made possible by an unprecedented transfer of wealth and technology from West to East by transnational corporations operating with the consent and even the encouragement of government officials like Locke.

On Feb. 24, only two days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton completed her visit to China, The People’s Daily ran a column entitled: “The U.S. Hegemony ends, the era of global multipolarity enters.” The People’s Daily is the official voice of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The editorial started by reveling in the economic crisis that has swept America, discrediting the notion that the U.S. and China are business partners rather than strategic rivals. But it was the conclusion that was most chilling, “at least one thing is certain: the U.S. strength is declining at a speed so fantastic that it is far beyond anticipation. The U.S. is no longer ‘King of the hill,’ as a new phase of multipolar world power structure will come into being in 2009, and the international order will be correspondingly reshuffled.” Beijing understands what is happening in Washington, even if the American people haven’t gotten the message yet.

William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.