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U.S. Senate confirms Locke as ambassador to Beijing

WASHINGTON (AFP) ― Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke won unanimous Senate confirmation 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 U.S. businesses.

The new envoy 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, 61, takes over at a time of tensions in U.S.-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 U.S. lawmakers, locked in an angry debate over cash-strapped Washington’s debt, have increasingly expressed concern at China’s status as the country’s largest foreign creditor.

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.

During his Senate confirmation hearings, Locke said he would use his personal story to reach out to China’s people, but vowed not to 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 U.S. foreign policy, and if confirmed, I will clearly and firmly advocate for upholding universal rights in China,” he said.

Locke, pointing to his work in Obama’s cabinet, said he would also fight for U.S. 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 U.S. firms.

Locke recognized that China has let the yuan appreciate but said: “We, of course, think that it should float more and faster.”