If confirmed by the Senate, Locke will succeed Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah. Huntsman has resigned and is now exploring a possible run for the presidency.
Locke drew on his compelling family history in accepting the nomination. 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 and moved to the U.S. as a teenager, died in January.
"I know that if he were still alive, it would be one of his proudest moments to see his son named as the United States ambassador to his ancestral homeland," said Locke, as his wife and three young children looked on.
Locke, 61, developed a strong relationship with businesses during his two terms as governor of Washington, which is home to several high-tech companies including Boeing and Microsoft.
Microsoft and Boeing both have a strong interest in America's economic relationship with China. In January, Boeing finalized a $19 billion deal to sell 200 airplanes to China. Microsoft has advocated for greater enforcement of intellectual property rights in China, estimating that only one in 10 customers using Microsoft products in China is actually paying for them.