Future economic development in Alaska relies on outside customers; Alaska’s resources are so vast that their market is worldwide.
We should celebrate being an international exporter and be concerned when local voices speak negatively about our business partners around the world. Discouraging outside investment will not build a stronger Alaska, but prevent our resources getting to world markets and to Alaskans. Disparaging our customers shrinks our economy at a time when we desperately need growth.
Here’s an important headline: Alaska exported $4.93 billion of goods in 2017, with over $1.32 billion going to China. China has been Alaska’s largest export partner for the last seven years. They benefit from the abundance of our fisheries, mining, oil and gas, and timber. Gov. Bill Walker’s trade mission to China presents an opportunity to further engage with this economic powerhouse.
The federal administration has made it clear that our country benefits from selling more goods to China, especially the energy Alaska has in abundance. For natural resources, China is an import nation and Alaska is an export State. In fact, the U.S. trade deficit with China was a key component of President Trump selecting the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. to participate in the U.S. trade mission to China last fall.
There, President Trump witnessed the signing of the Joint Development Agreement between Alaska, AGDC, and China Petrochemical (Sinopec), CIC Capital Corp., and Bank of China in a historic step to advance the Alaska LNG project. These three Chinese companies do business all over the world and recognize that Alaska has a bright future as a reliable export partner.
This kind of economic cooperation and trade is not new. China is the biggest customer of Alaska seafood, buying over $796 million of our products last year — more than any other country and an increase of 27 percent from 2016.
Relationships between Alaskans and their customers in China are growing as this business grows, and for decades Alaska has fostered these same relationships with markets in Korea, Japan, and other countries.
And yet, China or other Asian customers does not manage our fisheries. They do not count our salmon to ensure proper escapement, nor do they schedule when our families can dipnet on the Kenai or sink a lure in Auke Bay. The State of Alaska manages our fisheries for the benefit of Alaskans, and Alaska will never cede control our fisheries to foreign markets.
We also profit from selling other resources to China, including over $355.8 million worth of metal ores and millions of dollars of forest products in 2017. China’s purchase of these resources adds significantly to a healthy and diversifying state-wide economy across Alaska, without ceding control or management of these resources either.
For exports of Alaska’s beauty, representatives from Alaska’s tourism industry have been working for years to draw more Chinese visitors. After Chinese President Xi’s visit with Walker last April, both Fairbanks and Anchorage reported an immediate increase. Tour operators are fielding more inquiries from Chinese tourists, and the State of Alaska is working on setting up direct flights from Alaska to China to further stimulate this influx of economic activity for our communities.
To be clear, these comments are not about the federal administration’s recent trade announcements. Our focus is on Alaska and Alaskan opportunities. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, the opportunities for Alaska and Asia to partner together are clear, providing we take our shot with the can-do optimism our state is built on.
As Alaskan economic development entities, we envision a future where we see more and more headlines telling a positive Alaska-China story. China’s longstanding consumption of Alaska products has been creating benefits across the state for years, and the upcoming trade mission to China is a clear opportunity for us to strengthen this bond and continue to grow our economy.
Finally, while the Alaska-China relationship did not start with the Alaska LNG project, it is a huge step forward we need to carefully encourage.
Doug Griffin is the executive director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference. Tim Dillon is the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.