A new approach to business emerges in China trade

Nathan Rothman is proof you don't have to be an ''old Asia hand'' to succeed in the new China trade. Until about two years ago, Rothman was building fiberglass pleasure boats in Seattle; trading with China was far from his thoughts.

Then in 1981 a company approached him about making and importing boats from mainland China. The company had the money but didn't want to put up with the hassles it believed would come from dealing with the People's Republic of China.

Rothman, who had never been to China before, spent the next three months traveling in China, making contacts, meeting with China experts, and learning how things were done.

Eventually, he sold his Valiant Yacht Company and began making pleasure boats in China, selling them to dealers all over the world.

Building yachts in mainland China is not as farfetched as it may sound initially. Taiwan (the Republic of China) is the world's leading builder of yachts for export to the US.

From that deal two years ago, Rothman's company, The Interface Inc., has blossomed into one of the largest, if not the largest, of trading companies in Seattle. It deals in everything from steel to furniture.

It is also a sign of how far the China trade has moved in the past few years. The days when China exported fireworks, hog bristles, baskets, rare metals, and little else are a thing of the past.

These products (along with textiles) are still an important component of the trade, but the spectrum of Chinese exports to the US is widening to cover a host of light industrial products.

This is one reason why the once-yawning trade gap between the US and China has narrowed considerably in recent years - to the point where a trade deficit is not inconceivable in the future.

The other reason, was the big decline this year in agricultural exports to China, caused in part by good crops in China and the retaliation by China against cotton and other agricultural imports because of the recent textile quota dispute.

Mr. Rothman's business is typical of how the China trade is changing in subtle ways. In the past a China importer went to the Canton Trade Fair or some other exposition, saw something he thought would sell in the United States, and arranged to import it from China.

Interface tends to look first at the American market to see if there is something being sold or needed in the US that the Chinese could make cheaper or more efficiently. Then its representatives go to China and arrange to have it made there. Thus in a sense, Interface is literally creating new industries in China.

Rothman admits he sometimes feels a twinge of guilt about, in effect, exporting jobs to China. But he reasons that the US is rapidly changing from an industrial to a high-technology and service-oriented country and that light industry is moving inexorably to the third world. ''If not China, then it will be Africa, or some other place; China will not sit still,'' he said.

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