"I can think of nobody who is more qualified than Gary Locke," Obama said in announcing the appointment. "More than 100 years ago, Gary's grandfather left China on a steamship bound for America, where he worked as a domestic servant in Washington State. A century later, his grandson will return to China as America's top diplomat."
Huntsman is rumored to be considering a presidential run in 2012.
Obama praised Locke as "one of our nation's most respected and admired public servants."
"As one of the world's fastest-growing economies, our relationship with China is one of the most critical of the 21st century," Obama said, adding, "Continued cooperation between our countries will be good for America, it will be good for China, and it will be good for the world."
Locke thanked Obama for the opportunity.
"As commerce secretary, I've helped open up foreign markets for American businesses so they can create more jobs right here in America. And I'm eager to continue that work in China and to help you, Mr. President, manage one of America's most critical and complex diplomatic, economic, and strategic relationships," Locke said.
Obama also had several meetings out of the public eye Wednesday.
He was to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and later with Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Richard Eubank in the Oval Office.
Basketball-viewing is on tap for the evening as Obama hosts a party to watch the Chicago Bulls play the Charlotte Bobcats. The guest list includes a bipartisan group of congressional members representing Chicago and Charlotte, N.C.