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Saturday, March 24, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gregoire, New Zealand leader discuss common interests

Seattle Times staff reporter

New Zealand's top politician navigated icy canyons Friday as part of a virtual-reality tour at the University of Washington — a tour that reflects the real-life political obstacles she has faced over the years in the other Washington.

Prime Minister Helen Clark ended a weeklong tour of the U.S. with visits to the UW and Microsoft. Earlier in the week, she met with President Bush and other top administration officials to try to bury a 20-year-old dispute over nuclear weapons and lay the groundwork for a free-trade deal.

In Seattle, Gov. Christine Gregoire greeted Clark warmly as a kindred spirit. The two leaders, who met last year when Gregoire's daughter was studying in New Zealand, listed their common interests: climate-change strategies; biofuel development; agricultural improvements; technology innovations — even ferry-system improvements.

"There's a tremendous amount that goes on in this state that we can hook into," Clark said, pointing out that Air New Zealand was among the first customers for Boeing's new 787 plane.

Gregoire likewise emphasized New Zealand's importance as an emerging trade partner and as a place that shares a similar beauty and focus on the environment.

Last year, New Zealand ranked 23rd among Washington's export countries, with $519 million in goods, according to www.wisertrade.org. And Washington ranked second among the states, behind California, as an importer of New Zealand goods, according to TradeStats Express.

However, there remains some overlap and competition — both regions have created strong markets in apples, wine and tourism.

Clark, who has led the South Pacific nation of 4 million people since 1999, is known for her intellect, her love of the arts and a stern seriousness. She was ranked by Forbes magazine last year as the 20th-most-powerful woman in the world — behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel (1), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (2), Melinda Gates (12) and Oprah Winfrey (14).

Clark began her Seattle tour with a visit to the UW's Human Interface Technology (HIT) lab, where scientists are working on ways to alleviate the pain suffered by burn victims by distracting them in a virtual world of ice. Clark tried out the technology during her visit. Lab founder Tom Furness greeted Clark via video hookup from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where Furness has started a second HIT lab.

At the UW's Burke Museum, Clark was shown a collection of New Zealand artifacts and the close link between native artwork from the two regions. She later met Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer and Microsoft chief financial officer Chris Liddell, an expatriate New Zealander.

Earlier in the week, Clark discussed with Bush and other officials New Zealand's 1987 ban on nuclear weapons, which has kept U.S. warships from visiting New Zealand ports. The ban has proved popular in that country but has played negatively in negotiations with the U.S. over defense and trade.

"There's still some raw feelings over the trade issue, on both sides," Clark said. "Both sides have been quite antagonistic at times."

Clark was able to claim a small diplomatic victory when Bush this week acknowledged the ban's popularity in the South Pacific. Clark added that she believes New Zealand is well positioned for a trade deal when the U.S. begins a new round of trade negotiations.

"It's not a question of 'if' — it's a question of 'when,' " she said.

Nick Perry is a native New Zealander who has been living in Seattle since 2000. Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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