Can a Northeast Chinese city be Alaska’s next big trading partner?

World Trade Center Harbin, developed by the Hua Hong Group, is seeking possible economic opportunities with Alaska. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

This morning, a group of Chinese business delegates from the northeastern city of Harbin visited Anchorage to foster discussions over future endeavors the two entities can work together on.

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Harbin is part of the Heilongjiang province in China and serves as a major agricultural hub for the country.

The delegates visiting Anchorage from Harbin were part of the Hua Hong group, a company specializing in real estate, agriculture, tourism, airlines and other interests. Suijin Kon with the World Trade Center Harbin, developed by Hua Hong, says the area is quite similar to Anchorage, and both cities would benefit from increased commerce.

“Obviously, we share a lot of commonalities in terms of latitude, in terms of climate, and there’s a huge opportunity in terms of short transit time between Harbin and Anchorage,” Kon said.

Kon says the approximate travel time to Anchorage from Harbin is about 6.5 hours. She says that short transit opens the door for trade opportunities, and WTC Hardin wants to capitalize on the location benefits.

One of the main business ventures the Chinese visitors were excited about was the prospect of shipping live seafood to China. In recent years, Kon says that the demand for wild sourced food has increased in China.

“There’s a push for non-farmed, non-GMO-type products. As you know, health risks exist and these are very important to Chinese consumers,” Kon said. “And they are willing to pay a fair amount of money for non-farmed seafood.”

Due to Harbin’s position as a major player in China’s agriculture economy, Harbin officials say that opening trade between Anchorage and the city could spread Alaska products across China.

Increasing economic ties to China has been a major platform of the Walker administration for the past few years. Recently, Walker took a delegation of Alaskans to China in order to foster future partnerships. Kon says the governmental support that WTC Harbin has received from both sides is very beneficial to the whole process.

“Having the governor set the stage for business connections to take place obviously helps,” Kon said. “It helps us to meet with all of you really quickly. And it also enables us to get government support from our end as well. As you heard, the mayor and the vice mayor of Hardin are very keen to get this trade relation going.”

Lindsey Whitt works with Matson, an Alaska-based freight shipping company, and she was one of the delegates traveling with the governor. Her company is looking to expand its routes — which currently travel from Anchorage, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor to Tacoma, Washington — to China. Whitt says the company isn’t looking at any particular part of China to establish a route.

“Well, we’ll cast a wide net. We’re in the research phase right now. So the trip over there was very eye-opening,” Whitt said. “Opportunities are fantastic for Alaskans and for China, and so we’re going to look into that now.”

Whitt says while seafood is by-and-large the hottest Alaska product in China, she’s hoping that the state can become large scale producers of a variety of products.

“We have some people from the Mat-Su Valley that are looking to export pork and logs and hay. We have excellent beer with the 49th State brewery and the clean, clear water that they use makes a great product,” Whitt said. “So Chinese folks are very interested in that product.”

Recently, the United States and China have had a contentious trading relationship, with both countries disagreeing over various tariffs.

Suijin Kon with WTC Hardin says that she’s aware of the various political obstacles that may arise in the Alaska-China economic future, but she is confident that it won’t upend work being done to foster the relationship.

“I would say that we have to be aware of all of the political ramifications of whatever we do, but that’s just business,” Kon said. “I think we will work through all of these issues because whatever it is, people have got to eat.”

The Harbin delegation is will be in Alaska through the weekend, meeting with various businesses in Anchorage, as well as visiting Girdwood. While many of the opportunities and prospects between China and Alaska are in the early stages, both sides seemed optimistic that through these partnerships, Alaska and China could reap large economic benefits.