Hello Ambassador Locke, Can You Get Me On the Line With China, Inc.?

3/10/11Follow @curtwoodward

Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke’s nomination as the U.S. ambassador to China puts someone the state’s business community knows very well at the forefront of one of the nation’s most important global relationships.

That doesn’t mean every Seattle-area company can expect the red-carpet treatment in Beijing—after all, presuming he’s confirmed by the Senate (which seems likely), Locke will be representing the entire country, not just his home state of Washington.

But some folks we talked with said that, essentially, it can’t hurt to have a familiar face manning the desk in what is perhaps the country’s highest-profile ambassadorial posting. China, by the way, is Washington state’s largest export market and second only to Canada in two-way trade, according to the state Commerce Department.

“We’re not going to be expecting Gary to be spending all his time thinking about Washington state,” says state Commerce Director Rogers Weed. “But I think the fact that he’s coming right out of the [federal] Commerce role, and being a connection to industry in the Obama administration, means he’s going to be tuned in to the trade and industry issues pretty naturally, which I think is a positive for any industry our state.”

Weed also notes that Locke’s legal background—he’s a lawyer by training and spent his early post-gubernatorial years at Davis Wright Tremaine—is a bonus for technology businesses that face tons of intellectual property worries in China. As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has prominently noted, the company estimates that only one of every 10 Microsoft users in China is actually paying for the products.

And don’t forget the people who worked for Locke during his days in the governor’s office who are now sprinkled throughout the private sector in Washington. That group includes Fred Kiga, a former Locke chief of staff who now works on policy issues for Amazon.com, and Roger Nyhus, a former communications director whose eponymous firm represents clients in life sciences, technology and clean energy.

Joseph Borich is president of the Washington State China Relations Council, a private nonprofit business association that works to strengthen ties with China. Borich sees plenty of growth potential in China for companies in Washington’s innovation sector.

“Many of them are fairly new. Some of them are still looking for more capitalization. Most, if not all of them, have international products and technologies, but they’re still trying to find some footing,” Borich says. “My sense is, for most of them, there is some interest in China but most of them are not ready to take that plunge.”

However, Borich adds, that could change significantly in the coming years.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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