ANCHORAGE — Chinese President Xi Jinping was able to take in views Friday night of the natural beauty that Alaska has to offer. The state’s governor hopes this will lead to an increased appetite in the world’s most populous nation for more natural resources from Alaska.
Xi requested time with Gov. Bill Walker Friday night as the Chinese delegation’s plane made a refueling stop in Alaska’s largest city following meetings with President Donald Trump in Florida. His wife and the Chinese delegation stepped off the Boeing 747 and were greeted by Walker, his wife and several dignitaries.
Later, the two men spoke briefly to reporters before a business meeting, in which Walker touted the state’s abundant natural resources: oil, fish, air cargo, mineral resources industries.
Walker also took time to advocate for a natural gas pipeline he has long backed, which would take natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope to the coast for shipment.
Alaska could provide a generation’s worth of liquefied natural gas to China, he told Xi.
For Walker, even just a few hours of time with the president of the world’s most populous country can pay dividends.
China is the state’s top export market, buying nearly $1.2 billion worth of goods in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The next top international market was Japan, at nearly $820 million, followed by South Korea, at $730 million.
Chris Hladick, the commissioner of the state’s Commerce department, called the visit by the Chinese delegation a “once-in-a lifetime opportunity.”
The state’s top export product to China? Fish, accounting for 58 percent. Frozen cod and flat fish, such as halibut, topped a lengthy list of fisheries products, which also included frozen salmon and pollock.
Jerry McCune is president of the United Fishermen of Alaska. He said he understood the trade talk would focus mostly on oil and gas, but added: “I would say that any trade that we can boost in the fishery with any particular county, China would be one that would be huge.”
Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said the Chinese market is important to Alaska for two reasons: it purchases a huge amount of Alaska fish for re-exporting purposes around the world, and Chinese consumers are now buying more seafood for consumption at home.
“Wild, sustainable, healthy, clean, —those type of attributes that you can put on Alaska seafood are becoming much more desirable for the Chinese consumer, and we’re seeing year after year, more Alaska seafood products actually staying in China for Chinese consumption” he said.
A distant second on the export list are minerals and ores, accounting for 27 percent. Included in that last year was about $130 million of precious metals, which Hladick said was likely gold from the Fairbanks area.
Hladick sees China as a potential market for Alaska coal and hoped to raise the issue with Chinese officials during their visit. “It’s meetings like this that spark interest and then you follow up,” Hladick said.
The state’s only operating coal mine is the Usibelli Coal Mine near Denali National Park and Preserve, and it provides 100 percent of the coal needs to Alaska’s six coal-burning power plants.
The company previously shipped coal to Chile, South Korea and Japan, but has no foreign export contracts this year.
“The only way for us to expand as a company is on the export market,” said spokeswoman Lorali Simon.
Xi didn’t discuss trade, but did tell reporters how much he enjoyed his short sightseeing tour of Anchorage, including a stop at Beluga Point, a pullout on the scenic Seward Highway about 15 miles south of Anchorage.
The pullout offers a stunning view of the snow-capped Chugach Mountains and Turnagain Arm in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. The waters are home to the endangered Beluga whale.
This wasn’t his first trip to Alaska, he said, but it was his first opportunity to see a little bit of the state’s natural beauty up close.
Xi is the second major world leader to spend time in Alaska’s largest city in the last few years. U.S. President Barack Obama used a three-day trip to Anchorage in 2015 to showcase the impact of climate change.
King Harald V of Norway also made an official visit to Anchorage a few months before Obama.
Alaska’s location provides a natural stopping point for world leaders to make refueling stops, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage has hosted many presidents over the years for these short stints.