clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jay Evensen: Why Utah's leaders made a trip to China despite trade war

An investor monitors stock prices at a brokerage house in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. Asian markets are mixed on Wednesday after U.S. companies, including those that outperformed in the third quarter, cautioned against escalating a trade dispute wi
An investor monitors stock prices at a brokerage house in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. Asian markets are mixed on Wednesday after U.S. companies, including those that outperformed in the third quarter, cautioned against escalating a trade dispute with China. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
AP

Nations do not trade with other nations. That’s a truth that often gets lost in all the shouting about trade wars and tariffs in Washington these days.

Trade is personal. It begins with a handshake, maybe a meal. Deals are struck when two sides find it mutually beneficial.

Which is why, while the Trump administration ramps up its trade war with China, and while the South China Morning Post breathlessly reported Wednesday that the price of a baseball cap may rise by 25 percent while the World Series is underway, states are carrying on as if nothing is happening.

Well, almost as if nothing is happening.

Governors and other political leaders are flying on trade missions to places such as China, with representatives of some of their largest businesses in tow.

It’s all about looking after the most important distance in international trade, which is the last three feet — the distance it takes to shake a hand and begin speaking to someone.

That’s what Miles Hansen, the new CEO of the World Trade Center Utah, told me, making sure I understood those aren’t his words. They were a common refrain of the first CEO of Utah’s trade center, Lew Cramer.

But really, they’re a pretty basic, commonsense description of how things work.

“No matter which administration is in the White House, Utah has very strong ties with countries all around the world, and that’s not going to change,” Hansen told me.

It also explains why he and others are excited about construction of a new inland port in the extreme northwest corner of Salt Lake City, and of the complete reconstruction of Salt Lake International Airport — two things that may seem overly optimistic in an increasingly hostile world.

Yes, it is true that, despite what Washington may do, international trade isn’t going away. Still, Utah and other states can’t act as if those conflicts don’t exist. Tariffs do affect local economies, even as they diminish overseas markets, right?

Hansen has an answer for this, too.

“Our view from Utah is that, by having a strong strategic partnership, by engaging lots of different issues, we are more easily able to find commonsense solutions to the challenges and disputes that do exist,” he said.

Hansen comes to the job after a career in international relations, serving most recently as director for gulf affairs at the National Security Council in the White House. He speaks Farsi, Arabic and Russian and was a staff aide to the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.

He has been on the job barely two months, but that’s long enough to have conducted trade missions to South Korea, Taiwan and the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Beijing, along with several Utah political and business leaders.

It’s hard to be in his presence long without feeling the passion he has for selling Utah abroad.

He ticks off some of the Beehive State’s unique characteristics: The foreign-language proficiencies and international experiences of the many returned missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the state’s ability to work toward negotiated solutions to vexing issues such as gay rights and medicinal marijuana; and Utah’s claim it is home to 20 percent of the people learning Mandarin in the United States, thanks in large part to language immersion programs.

He also believes art and education can enhance Utah’s chances at establishing lasting relationships. The Chinese trade mission included attendance at the opening of an exhibit by Utah artist Susan Swartz at China’s Central Academy of Fine Art. It included a visit to a youth innovation center, in which Utah already is a partner.

And then there is the inland port. The Utahns met with the chair of the Shanghai International Port Group, which claims to be the world’s largest port operation. Possibilities abound for cooperation and trade.

So far, Utah’s port has been mired in political fights over transparency and accountability, and whether the authority’s committees are subject to the open meetings law.

Hansen said those fights can lower expectations and blur the vision of what might happen.

“The quicker we can turn this from a local fistfight into a global opportunity, it’s going to be good for Utah, it’s going to be good for the inland port and it will help us as we try to expand our trade relationships with countries all around the world,” he said.

Again, that may seem overly optimistic to a Washington observer. But it may be much more reflective of trade’s future than anything happening there.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated Miles Hansen worked as the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. He was a staff aide to the assistant secretary. This version also clarifies his role in trade missions to Asian countries.