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Tuesday, April 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Hu's visit confirms Washington's key role in U.S.-China relations

Special to The Times

Chinese President Hu Jintao is finally coming to Seattle for a visit that was rescheduled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. His trip next week will highlight the pioneering role Washington state has played both in normalizing U.S.-China relations and in developing them since.

The United States and China established diplomatic relations in 1979, the same year another Chinese leader — the late Deng Xiaoping — visited Seattle after three decades of no contact between the two countries.

Why did Deng come to Seattle? The reasons reflect this state's long involvement in Chinese affairs:

• President Richard Nixon may have gone to China in 1972, but Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., advocated normal relations with China in the early 1950s — earning him suspicion as a communist sympathizer.

• While many American politicians may have worked hard for China's entry to the World Trade Organization in the 1990s, Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., was the first to push for most-favored-nation trade status for China in the 1970s.

• Containers with "Made in China" goods may be flowing through various American ports now, but in 1979 China sent its first cargo ship to the U.S. in 30 years — to Seattle, whose port had a history of trading with China from the mid-1880s.

• Thousands of American companies may be operating in, or entering, China today, but Washington's homegrown Boeing began selling airplanes to China in 1972, seven years before normalization.

• State after state may be sending trade missions to China now, but the very first trade mission by a state to China was organized in Olympia in 1979 and headed by then-Gov. Dixy Lee Ray.

Now, 27 years later, it is Hu Jintao's turn. In presiding over China's reforms and dealings with the world, his focus and personal style may be different from Deng Xiaoping's or Jiang Zemin's, but on relations with the U.S., Hu maintains the same policies as his predecessors, with trade as the driving force.

If Hu and President Bush face a string of tough issues in the other Washington, from terrorism to bird flu to North Korea and Iran, the Chinese leader can enjoy himself in this Washington.

As Joseph Borich, director of the Washington State China Relations Council (WSCRC), once commented, "Whatever the differences with Washington, D.C., there seems to be a lot of interest and action at developing grass-roots relationships."

What are those grass-roots relationships here?

While Boeing was the only company in the state doing business with China in the 1970s, there are countless numbers today, led by the new homegrown global giants, Microsoft and Starbucks. Two-way trade between Washington and China in 2004 passed $20 billion. Total state exports to China in 2005 increased 64 percent to a record $5.09 billion.

While China sent one cargo ship to Seattle in 1979, it has since become the top trading partner for the Port of Seattle. Two-way business topped $8.8 billion in 2003.

While China was new to Washingtonians in 1979, there now have been extensive personnel and organizational exchanges, including a number of sister relationships with China. The Washington-Sichuan and Seattle-Chongqing relationships are in their third decade.

While there was a first attempt in Olympia in 1979 to develop trade with China, there has since been the nation's first Chinese-American governor, Gary Locke, who not only led three China trade missions but also enhanced Washington state's reputation in China. Following in his footsteps, Gov. Christine Gregoire went to China in her first year in office.

While there were a few visionaries promoting Chinese ties in 1979, there are many more now, including the 150-member WSCRC and experienced hands such as Robert Kapp, former president of the U.S.-China Business Council, and Sidney Rittenberg, the China expert and business consultant who lived in China during many of its revolutionary years.

With their historic visits a little more than a quarter-century apart, it is clear that Deng's journey here was an acknowledgment of Washington state's early role in the normalization of U.S.-China relations, and Hu's is a recognition of the state's stellar contributions in growing those relations.

Wendy Liu, of Federal Way, is the author of "Connecting Washington and China — The Story of the Washington State China Relations Council" (November 2005, iUniverse). She can be reached at lyw8@aol.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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