Walker plans trade mission to China in May

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Governor Bill Walker plans to take a group of Alaska businesses to China in May for a trade mission. The Monday announcement was one of several aimed at further building relations with the state’s largest trading partner.

“The purpose of the trade mission really is to match up opportunities in Alaska with China, and China with opportunities in Alaska,” Gov. Walker told reporters in a press conference Monday morning.

Participants will be selected by a competitive application process through April 2, with the trade mission itself currently scheduled for May 19 through 26. Along with a handful of state officials, the businesses will participate in “high-level meetings” with government officials and industry leaders while in China. Walker said the goal is to introduce Alaska businesses to new customers overseas in an effort to expand Alaska markets.

The new development comes after several high-profile meetings between state and Chinese officials over the last year. Walker cited a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his entire cabinet at the Captain Cook Hotel last year, as a major milestone in negotiations with China. Under an agreement signed last year, China could play a major role in the construction of the multibillion dollar Alaska LNG project, and would be the destination of about 75 percent of the pipeline’s natural gas exports.

However, the announcement also comes amid fears of an impending trade war between China and the United States over President Donald Trump’s recently announced tariff proposals, which could affect steel and aluminum imports from China. But Walker dismissed concerns that the tensions would harm Alaska’s trade goals.

“The purpose of the tariffs is for the imbalance of trade. We think this goes in the right direction of actually creating a product that can go to offset that,” Walker said. “Everything that goes from Alaska to China is going to reduce that trade imbalance.”

Keith Meyer, president of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation, echoed the governor’s comments, adding that the tariffs would not make construction of the pipeline significantly more expensive.

“In terms of the actual impact, it’s not going to be that significant. Most of the cost of our project is actually construction and equipment, as opposed to raw steel,” Meyer said. “The heart of the issue is trade, and that’s where I think Alaska stands tall as being an export power house for the United States.”

Hoping to facilitate an increase in commerce, Ted Stevens International Airport also announced on Monday new efforts to become a more widely used gateway between Asia and the Lower 48.

“There’s currently a pilot shortage in the aviation industry, and also an aircraft shortage. And there’s slot problems at most of the congested international gateways,” said airport manager Jim Szcsesniak. “A bunch of our direct times to Asian destinations are less than eight hours, so that makes it only a two pilot operation in one airplane.”

But more than just trade and business, the airport is also responding to an increase in tourism from Asia. Visit Anchorage reports an uptick in the number of Chinese tourists in the state following President Xi’s visit.

“We are seeing a tremendous increase in inquiries from Chinese visitors, and also in product available both in Anchorage and also in Fairbanks to serve the Chinese visitors,” said Visit Anchorage president and CEO Julie Saupe. “Any time that we’ve met with a tour operator or a travel agent over the past several months, that comment has been reflected. People do say the visit from President Xi did have an impact on people’s interest in Alaska.”

Also announced on Monday was the creation of 100 new scholarships over five years for Alaskan university students to study in China. Alaska Pacific University President Bob Onders says their Nordic ski program is also looking into hosting Chinese athletes ahead of the next winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

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