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Trade Outlook With Vietnam Seen As Limited Washington Ports Not Expecting Much To Come From Lowry Mission

Gov. Mike Lowry may be in Vietnam on a trade mission, but Puget Sound ports don’t expect him to bring back much business.

Local trading with Vietnam “is a pea in the bucket,” according to Finn Wollebek, senior director of marketing and trade for the Port of Tacoma.

While Southeast Asia is seen as a growth area, added Ed McKinnon, “Vietnam’s down the road a ways for us - at least five years by our estimates.”

McKinnon is marine marketing manager for the Port of Seattle.

Lowry will be the first U.S. governor to visit Vietnam. He’s lined up a meeting with Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet and trade minister Le Van Triet.

“I hope this will be the first of many meetings to open trade opportunities between Vietnam and the state of Washington,” Lowry said Wednesday in a press release.

He pointed out that 38 percent of all trade between the United States and Vietnam passes through Washington ports. Commerce has been growing since the Clinton administration lifted the trade embargo in February 1994.

But the size of that trade - $222 million in 1994 - is minuscule compared with the tens of billions of dollars in import-export business between the United States and Korea, China, Taiwan and, of course, Japan. Those four countries comprise 85 percent of U.S. trade in the Pacific Rim.

“It’ll be a long time before Southeast Asia overtakes the sheer volume of that trade,” Wollebek said.

Officials are willing to wait while Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations grow as trading partners. Industrialized Asian nations are increasingly shifting manufacturing to the cheaper labor markets of Southeast Asia.

“I believe you’ll see factories built there,” Wollebek said.

Boeing Co. sales executives are in Vietnam now trying to interest the government airline in shedding its aging Russian jetliners for U.S. models.

So far, however, Vietnam has had little in the way of hard currency to allow it to trade in much volume.

It bought less than $80 million in U.S. goods in the first six months of this year, Wollebek said, and sold less than $90 million. Tacoma handled just under 23,000 metric tons of outbound cargo and about 32,400 tons inbound.

Washington in 1994 exported some $2.3 million in products to Vietnam - the bulk of it agricultural products and food. Not surprisingly, apples were the largest single commodity.

Whether imports from Vietnam eventually will grow to become a noticeable share of Puget Sound trading may have more to do with geography than gubernatorial visits, however.

About 25 percent of Southeast Asian export trade now follows a route across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal to New York. The time span is the same as if the cargo were shipped to Puget Sound and sent by rail to the East Coast, Wollebek said.

Since the shipping cost on each route is similar, “New York could undercut the Pacific Northwest,” he said.

But Puget Sound ports won’t ignore Vietnam or other Southeast Asian trading nations just because they’re small markets compared to Japan or Korea.

“We cannot afford to take the attitude that we’ll just let it go,” Wollebek said.

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