Northwest attracts new China trade

Trade between China and the Pacific Northwest is warming up faster than anyone would have suspected. That is the optimistic view of Port of Portland officials where Chinese flagships have begun docking with regularity in recent months.

Portland and Seattle offer the closest West Coast ports to China and thus are in a position to benefit from increased trade with the People's Republic.

The Port of Seattle, for example, is approximately 300 miles -- or about a day's sailing -- closer to Shanghai, the main Chinese port, than are San Francisco or Oakland.

So officials of both ports have been wooing the Chinese intensely. Both ports have sent delegations of marketing and technical experts to China to critique -- and make recommendations for upgrading -- port facilities there.

Portland also has a "China team" to help Chinese shiping executives navigate the intricacies of forwarding cargoes from here to the US interior.

Seattle scored something of a coup in the shipping industry when the first Chinese flagship to visit a United States port in 30 years docked there in April 1979 to take on a load of corn.

Then, last February, the first Chinese general cargo ship to visit the United States since normalization of relations between the two countries docked in Portland with 3,000 tons of goods bound for 25 US cities.

Since then, two more general cargo ships from China have called at Portland and a third is expected this month, making this city a "de facto port-of-call," in the opinion of some port officials.

The Chinese cargoes have consisted of a variety of crafts, artifacts, and furniture. They have been loaded onto railroad flatcars for the journey east -- on what the Burlington Northern Railroad likes to call its new "Orient Express."

The Chinese, in turn, have purchased heavy machinery from a Portland manufacturing firm, and, for a time, soft white Northwestern wheat, which is useful in making pastries and other baked goods.

Northwestern wheat farmers are eager to develop China into a major market for their commodities. But the Chinese reportedly have been reluctant to buy because they fear a smut fungus peculiar to the Northwest.

Thus, farmers in this region were elated when the Chinese quietly began buying wheat last November. Four months later, however, the Chinese stopped buying as quietly and mysteriously as they had entered the market.

Contamination with smut is naturally suspected, but officials say they are not sure exactly why the Chinese stopped buying.

"All we know is they are not buying. It could be smut; it could be price, or something else," said Paul Green of US Wheat Associates, a marketing organization based in Portland.

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