The phrase "China trade" evokes an image of graceful windjammers, loaded down with spices, tea, and silk, racing across the Pacific to American ports. While this romantic picture belongs to the past, a special aura still surrounds the idea of commerce with China.
Part of this allure undoubtedly is the general American fascination with the People Republic of China that grew as relations warmed between the two countries in the 1970s. Part of it is simple dollars and cents, particularly to the American pots competing eagerly for a share of growing Chinese world commerce.
Last year, total trade between the United States and the People's Republic of China was $2.3 billion, about double the total for 1978.
The Port of Seattle, which handled the bulk of Chinese imports to the US prior to the Communist takeover in 1949, is seeking a major role in the trade revival. "Assuming political stability in China, we estimate that our share of the China traffic will increase by 8 to 10 percent per year," says Richard Ford, executive director of the Port of Seattle.
Trade experts estimate that the Chinese-American trade will grow to about $5 billion annually within five years. This is small compared with total US trade, but officials from American ports have been courting it earnestly nonetheless.
"It doesn't bother me at all to get a new client who is small but will grow steadily," says the gruff-voiced Mr. Ford. He says that the Port of Seattle has built its $10 billion per year traffic from a large number of small shippers.
Mr. Ford has headed a trade delegation to China, as have representatives from all the West Coast ports. And representatives from a number of Chinese ports have been inspecting US facilities.
This month two delegation toured the Port of Seattle. In September, four Chinese from the Port of Shanghai will come to Seattle for extended training in US port management techniques.
Most of the activity thus far has been that of trade delegations rather than exchange of goods. "The Chinese are still exploring, investigating things here, " explains George Nakata of the Port of Portland, Ore. "It's too soon to see any patterns," he believes.
Both Portland and Seattle would like to see substantial Chinese traffic funneled through its facilities. But each US port has some advantages and disadvantages; weighing Chinese traffic funneled through its facilities. But each US port has some advantages and disadvantages; weighing these is a complicated matter, admit Americans port officials.
These two Pacific Northwest ports, for example, are the closest US mainland ports to China. This means reduced shipping costs for the Chinese. But Los Angeles has a major local market for Chinese goods that Pacific Northwest ports lack. And the Gulf Coast ports, though much farther away, are the source for the Midwest produce that the Chinese would like to import.
Overall, this year has seen a marked increase in the number of Chinese ships putting into US ports. The first docked in Seattle in April 1979 and picked up a load of corn. This spring, three others steamed into Portland, unloaded general cargo, and picked up consignments of grain and manufactured goods. A second ship has visited Seattle and a third is on the way.
According to mr. Ford, the cargoes that the Chinese have been bringing to the US include goose feathers, garments, honey, nails, tacks, screws, spices, tea, and rattan.
In the pre-World War II days, the Chinese imported mainly tug oil and pig bristles. Today they appear interested in raw cotton, soybean oil, steel pipes and tubes, wood pulp, and wrapping and kraft paper.
With the recent granting of most-favored-nation trading status to the Chinese , US trade officials foresse a steady, if unspectacular, increase in traffic between the two nations.
"Since 1975, the Chinese leadership has recognized that they can do more for their economy if they reach outside their own boundaries [rather] than if they try to remain absolutely self-sufficient," observes Mr. Ford.
Because of the size of China, the most populous nation in the world, even if trade remains small on a per capita basis, the potential is tremendous. American ports would like a major piece of the action.