US Northwest finds China a tough trader

The bloom seems to have fallen off the China trade in the Pacific Northwest these days.

More than any other region in the country, the Northwest had hoped to benefit from normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC).

People here were delighted in 1979 when the Chinese ship Liu Lin Hai picked Seattle as its first US port-of-call. The city seemed favored to become the principal gateway through which America funneled products to 800 million potential Chinese customers.

Ships flying the PRC flag, however, never returned to Seattle on a regular basis. For a while, there was regular service to Portland, Ore. But even that has been discontinued.

Northwest wheat farmers haven't sold a bushel to China since last spring. The question of wheat sales has been complicated by the problem of some crop contamination from a rare plant fungus found only in the Northwest. To this uncertainty about the China trade has been added the Reagan administration's indecision over the issue of selling advanced jet fighters to Taiwan.

''I see a growing recognition that doing business in China is tough,'' says Bob Kapp, executive director of the Washington China Relations Council.

The 70-member council was formed two years ago in the first blush of excitement over the China trade when President Carter established full diplomatic relations with the PRC. The organization is holding its own and even growing despite difficult times, Mr. Kapp says.

''The people in China doing the buying are trained to do nothing but negotiate,'' he explains. ''Often it is a shock to see how competent they are. Doing business with them is tough and grueling; even after the sale is made, it needs much care and watering.''

It would be a mistake, however, to put too much emphasis on the gloom and doom aspects. There was much good news about the Northwest-China trade in 1981.

The year heralded breakthroughs for some timber and high-technology firms. In October, the John Fluke Company concluded an agreement to begin manufacturing digital voltmeters in Peking.

Meanwhile, the Weyerhaeuser Company scored a coup by selling China more than 8 million board feet of processed lumber, the first significant shipment of lumber to China since World War II. It was part of the approximately 200 million board feet of total timber products China bought from the Northwest in 1981, double the amount purchased in 1980.

The Weyerhaeuser sale was the result of more than two years of planning, which would seem to support the observation that China trade needs care and watering.

Care and watering doesn't always work, however. Sometimes the Chinese just pick up their business and go elsewhere -- which is what the China Ocean Shipping Company did last year when it discontinued service to Portland in favor of San Francisco.

That decision reflected a growing sophistication of the Chinese merchant fleet with the steady addition of new roll-on/roll-off container ships. These new ''ro-ro'' ships began calling on San Francisco a year ago, delivering a variety of light-industrial products and taking on return cargoes of cotton.

The Chinese shipping service to Portland had suffered from the fungus problem that has precluded Northwest wheat sales to China. Without that wheat there hasn't been much from the Northwest for the Chinese ships to haul back to China.

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