The Senate is preparing to use the confirmation hearing of current Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who President Barack Obama is set to nominate as the next U.S. ambassador to China, to criticize what many lawmakers see as the administration's flawed policy toward Beijing.
Locke, a Chinese-American whose parents emmigrated from Hong Kong, has extensive experience dealing with China. He traveled to China several times during his eight years as governor of Washington state and ran a law practice at the Seattle-based firm of Davis Wright Tremaine that focused heavily on China-related issues. Locke also has deep connections to the Chinese leadership, which could come in handy if he's confirmed by the Senate.
Locke was confirmed unanimously as Commerce Secretary by voice vote in 2009, but his confirmation this time around is far from assured. For senators on both sides of the aisle, their concerns are not about Locke, personally. They see the upcoming confirmation process as an opportunity to press the administration on several aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, including China's currency manipulation, abuse of intellectual property rights, support for brutal regimes in places like Sudan and Zimbabwe and failure to enforce international sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
"We're going to have some issues regarding China policy," Sen. James Risch (R-ID), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Cable in an interview Tuesday. Asked what issues he would want to bring up in Locke's committee hearing, Risch responded, "Where do you start? There's just a whole list of issues."
For most lawmakers, China's insistence on keepings its currency undervalued, which exacerbates the U.S.-China trade deficit and encourages companies to move jobs overseas, is an issue that Locke had direct influence over as head of the Commerce Department. Even senior Democrats who do not sit on the Foreign Relations Committee said they plan to press Locke on trade and economic issues through written questions and when debating his nomination on the Senate floor.
"I want to ask him ‘What have you done and why hasn't more been done,'" Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable. "I have questions about the manipulation of currency by China, questions about the fact that they close their markets to our goods but still get access to our markets, what I would consider unfair trade practices by China. There would be questions about intellectual property, about counterfeits. I want to know what he plans to do about it."
Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have taken the lead on the currency issue in the Senate. Graham said that he was unhappy with the administration's progress on the issue but wouldn't necessarily hold up Locke's nomination because of it.
"If I'm going to have to find somebody who makes me happy on the China currency issue, we're probably never going to have an ambassador," Graham told The Cable.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), told The Cable that he liked Locke personally, but would use the confirmation process to press the administration to prove it is willing to enforce sanctions under the Iran sanctions laws, which he played a key role in drafting, against Chinese companies who are still doing business with Iran.
Other senators who have pressed the administration to enforce Iran sanctions against Chinese companies include Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). One senior GOP aide said that the issue could become a problem for Locke's confirmation.
"The State Department is going to find it very difficult getting Secretary Locke confirmed to be our ambassador to China if it cannot articulate the standards by which China's violations of Iran sanctions laws will be sanctioned," the aide said.
Larry Wortzel, commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said that Locke will be pressed on human rights issues, religious freedom, and security matters, in addition to currency and trade.
"Confirmation hearings in the Senate will be used as a platform to state criticism of current policy, as they always are," said Wortzel. "But I think there is a strong probability Locke will be confirmed."