WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday named Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, a pivotal post in relations between the United States and a major emerging economic power.

Obama, a Democrat who took office in January, announced Huntsman's nomination at the White House.

The Mandarin-speaking Huntsman, who has been mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, served as deputy U.S. trade representative in the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001-2004.

He was also U.S. ambassador to Singapore from 1992 to 1994 when Bush's father was president.

The China envoy post is considered crucial because of Beijing's role as the biggest investor in U.S. Treasury bonds and as a key U.S. trading partner plus its growing international clout on issues such as the North Korean nuclear standoff.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Eric Walsh)