Washington-China Trade Relations: A Continuous Improvement Model

Washington state may be the top exporter from the U.S. to China today, but maintaining that status will likely take a series of continuous improvements to stay in that top spot.

That’s one of the messages shared today by Washington’s trade and export leaders, who have been watching this week’s visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping carefully. John Stuhlmiller, CEO of the Washington Farm Bureau, highlighted how critical it is for his members – farmers, ranchers, growers and producers – to deliver products from farm to market.

Just how important are agricultural imports for Washington state?

  • Agriculture in Washington state is a $49 billion business.
  • It represents 13% of Washington state’s overall economy.
  • Nearly $46 million in Washington apples were exported to Hong Kong and China last year.
  • 34,500 ranchers and farmers generate 164,400 jobs each year for Washington.
  • All told, $15.1 billion in food and agricultural products move through Washington ports annually.

“Trade is the lifeblood of agriculture in the U.S. but in Washington in particular,” said Stuhlmiller. “Our greatest need is to make sure we have the capacity to operate.

“Our need is to have future export growth, and capacity for that growth, so we need to have a top-tier export infrastructure, and for ag, that means a first-class farm-to-market network, whether it’s rail, truck, roads, getting  products to the shipping point for export. And then the ability to move it from the port to that international destination,” said Stuhlmiller. “We just have to have that capacity.”

As Stuhlmiller noted on the call, there are several viable proposals in the pipeline right now  — the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Bellingham and the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview — that would help move bulk export, a major factor given that because much of Washington’s agricultural goods move in bulk, not packaged form.

“The bulk aspect is very important. And we simply have to have regulatory appropriateness, fairness, predictability and speed to make sure we can compete in those world markets,” he added. “If China is looking to move produce, they’re not going to wait five, six, seven, eight, 10 years for us to develop the infrastructure necessary to handle that product.  We have to be real time and private investment is critical to our ability to meet that demand.”

According to Louise Tieman, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Tacoma, Washington’s agricultural products are highly coveted among the Chinese, who are very concerned with food safety in the wake of recent food scares.

“As we are in China, we are asked or told they are looking for fresh, clean made-in-America food,” she said. “Washington has a tremendous opportunity to fill that need. “

And the newly forged Seaport Alliance between the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle will pay multiple dividends to business all across Washington, Tieman noted.

“When we talked to Chinese companies, the notion that it takes one day less to get their goods from China to U.S. markets is important to them,” she said. “We are supporting the port’s activities. We are thrilled with the Seaport Alliance to help the competitiveness of our ports stay strong,” said Tieman.

“There is just no question that it is important to the Chinese that we have the infrastructure and the workforce and the capabilities to conduct business with them.”

Click here to hear more from Tieman and Stuhlmiller about the Washington state-China trade relationship.