When Secretary of State John Hay was pushing his "open door" policy for China back at the turn of the century, he said: "The Miditerranean was the ocean of the past, the Atlantic is the ocean of the present, and the Pacific will be the ocean of the future'.
From Seattle to San Diego, trade activity on the West Coast today bears this out. Like the history of the West itself, ports here are bustling, growing, and vigorously competing for their share of the rapidly expanding Far East market. They are shipping logs and wood chips to Japan, grain and cotton to China, aerospace and electronics equipment all around the Pacific basin.
"West Coast ports generally are very porgressive, very competitive, and very, very well managed," says J. Ron Brinson, executive vice-president of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA).
US Commerce Department data complied by Security Pacific National bank shows that while overall import-export traffic here has not yet caught up with the East or Gulf Coasts, trends in the West are much stronger than other shipping regions.
"In 1979 the West coast had the strongest rate of growth in export and the greatest decrease in trade deficient," says Gladys Moreau, head of Security Pacific's international trade databank.
According to the Maritime Administration, US ports over the next four years will spend nearly as much to improve and expand their terminal facilities as was spent in the past quarter century. "A great deal of this will be on the West Coast," says Mr. Brinson.
The Port of Los Angeles last year began a $405 million five-year capital construction program. This will include a major dredging project to accommodate larger ships and a computer-controlled facility to expedite movement of large container vessels.
The Port of Long Beach (which shares a harbor with the port of Los Angeles) will build a 150-acre terminal for imported automobiles, and more expansion is planned.
Regarding Oakland, Calif., Gertrude Stein once quipped that "there's no there there." But as far as shipping goes that is certainly no longer true about San Francisco's cross-bay rival. Oakland, in fact, has left its better-known neighbor in a swirling wake of port activity.
"Oakland has developed into a very important world maritime center," said Walter Abernathy, the port executive director. The figures bear him out and can be summed up in a single word: "containerization."
Since the mid-1960s, Oakland has pushed ahead full-tilt to develop this efficient method of moving goods. It is the top container port on the West Coast, second only to New York in the United States, and among the five largest in the world. Eighty percent of its cargo is moved in containers, and the 10 million tons handled last year is expected to quadruple over the next two decades.
Farther up the coast, the Port of Portland recently received a setback when the Mt. St Helens erupton sent some 22 million cubic yards of mud and debris into the mouth of the Columbia River. The US Army Corps of Engineers says it will take $44 million and perhaps two months to complete the necessary dredging. But all of this is viewed as only a temporary problem in Portland.
According to the AAPA, Portland between 1978 and 1979 had the highest growth rate of any US port. The total volume of exports and imports jumped 45 percent. Wheat is the largest commodity exported from Oregon, and wood projects aren't far behind. Portland leads other West Coast ports in handling more than 200,000 foreign automobiles.
Port of Seattle executive director Richard Ford likes to point out that his city is a day and a half closer to Shanghai (800 miles) than Los Angeles. Seattle was one of the first American cities to be visited by Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Deng Xiaping last year. Even before normalization of relations between the United States and China was announced the previous year, Seattle port officials had visited China. Large amounts of corn have since been shipped there through Seattle.
"All of this is geopolitical," observes Francis J. Pard, executive vice-president of the Pacific Coast Association of Port Authorities. One might add that the geopolitics of today favor ports on the West Coast and bear out John Hay's prophetic comment of nearly 80 years ago.
"Asia has become our biggest foreign market," says AAPA researcher Dr. Rex Sherman. "Japan is our No. 1 trading partner, and everybody's looking to China now. That's going to be a big market; there's no question about it."