President Obama on Wednesday nominated Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as ambassador to China. If confirmed by the Senate he would be the first Chinese-American to hold the sensitive post.

Locke would succeed Republican Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who's seen as a potential challenger to Obama in the 2012 presidential race.

"Our relationship with China is one of the most critical of the 21st century," Obama said at the White House with Locke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his side.

"As the grandson of a Chinese immigrant who went on to live the American dream, Gary is the right person to continue this cooperation," Obama said.

The ambassadorship to China is one of the most critical jobs in U.S. diplomacy given America's complex and sometimes strained ties with the huge and growing Asian power.

Obama said he'd be counting on Locke to advocate for American businesses and boost exports and American jobs, and draw on management skills he developed as governor of Washington state to develop the complicated relationship with China.

Locke, 61, drew on his family history in accepting the nomination. He talked about how his grandfather first came to America to work as a houseboy in a Washington home in exchange for English lessons. His father, who also was born in China, died in January, and Locke said it would have been "one of his proudest moments to see his son named as the United States ambassador to his ancestral homeland."

"I'm going back to the birthplace of my grandfather, my father, my mom and her side of the family. And I'll be doing so as a devoted and passionate advocate for America, the country where I was born and raised," said Locke, as his wife and young children watched on in the Diplomatic Room.

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Locke touted the economic relationship he has helped build between the U.S. and China and said U.S. exports to China increased 34 percent last year.

Obama has set a goal of doubling within five years the amount of American goods that are sold to other countries -- an effort in which Locke has been a key cheerleader.

Despite the administration's increased pressure on Beijing, the U.S. trade imbalance with China reached an all-time high last year -- $273.1 billion.

Before taking over at Commerce, Locke worked on China issues for a Seattle-based law firm. He joined the firm after declining, for family reasons, to seek a third term as Washington state's governor; Locke became the nation's first Chinese-American state chief executive when he was elected governor in 1996.

He'll become the first member of Obama's Cabinet to leave the Cabinet,