June 17, 2008

Chinese Interest in the Area Intensifies

By Tim Logan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jun. 17--Thirty years ago, China opened the doors of its economy to the West.

Now St. Louis wants to open its doors right back.

Local business leaders hosted China's top economic minister and a delegation of 200 government and business leaders Monday for the latest round of steadily intensifying talks about deeper trade ties between our region and the world's fastest-growing economy.

It was the fourth high-level meeting between St. Louis and Chinese officials this year, and the first visit by Vice Premier Wang Qishan, a top Chinese economic official who stopped here on his way to meet with U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in Washington.

"His presence here speaks volumes about how seriously the Chinese are exploring the notion of making St. Louis their Midwestern port of entry to the United States," said Richard Fleming, president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.

At a morning-long event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton, Qishan held closed-door meetings with Missouri's two U.S. senators while business leaders pitched the region to a roomful of Chinese firms looking to invest in the Midwest. And several local companies and soybean industry groups held an official signing ceremony for $5.3 billion worth of export deals to China.

Then, after a lunch of Midwestern beef, Qishan spoke at length of the importance of strong trade ties between China and the Midwest, and the role St. Louis will play in that.

China "landed on the East and West coasts first," he said. "But it is time that we moved our attention to St. Louis and the state of Missouri, and used the base here in St. Louis to expand our openness to the Midwest of the United States, to open up further and promote economic links."

And this, Qishan and other Chinese officials acknowledged, will require two-way trade.

Exports from Missouri to China topped $1 billion last year, and while they are still dwarfed by imports, they are growing fast. On a trip to Beijing in March, state officials reached a deal with Chinese commerce ministers that the country would increase purchases from Missouri by 50 percent over five years. And talks continue about an Air China freight hub at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, talks that began in earnest on that March trip.

The air hub was a main topic of talks Monday between Qishan and Sens. Christopher "Kit" Bond and Claire McCaskill. And a group of Chinese aviation officials will be in town all week studying how to make it work.

"We're all agreed on where we want to go," Bond said after the meeting. "Now, we need to work out the details."

The idea would be for Lambert to be a distribution hub for high-end, time-sensitive cargo being flown between China and the Midwest. Right now, much of that freight flies in the bellies of passenger planes to big coastal airports.

But as trade grows, there will perhaps 100 to 120 dedicated cargo flights a day between China and the U.S., four times what there is today, said Stephen Perry, a British trade expert who is working on the St. Louis cargo project.

"We want a share of those," Bond said.

And as China's giant middle class continues to grow, there will be more demand for products made here, like advanced machinery, high-tech equipment and, especially, food.

That was on the mind of Dan Duran, chief executive of the U.S. Soybean Export Council, which on Monday signed contracts it expects to be worth nearly $5 billion this year for U.S. companies to send soybeans to China.

Already, one in six soybeans grown in the U.S. goes to China, Duran said. And there's plenty of room for more.

"China for us represents a huge opportunity," Duran said. "There's business to be done. There's people to be fed. And we'll do that together."

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