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U.S.: Washington State Businesses Support New WTO Round

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington, 3 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The co-hosts of this week's ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle together represent $40 billion in foreign sales generated by businesses in Washington state.

Bill Gates' Microsoft Corporation did $10 billion in computer software sales abroad last year. A few kilometers across Seattle from Microsoft headquarters, Phil Condit's Boeing Company registered $30 billion in sales of commercial and military aircraft. That makes Boeing America's largest single exporter.

Boeing also operates an ocean-going satellite-launching venture with Russian and Ukrainian partners. Operation Sea Launch, which is based in Southern California, this fall successfully put its first commercial satellite into orbit from an equatorial launch site in the Pacific Ocean.

Moreover, $34 billion in exports flowed last year through the state's ports lining Puget Sound, an island-dotted finger of the Pacific Ocean that Seattle borders. That made Washington state the nation's leading exporter.

While Boeing and Microsoft account for most of the state's business sales abroad, they are far from being alone. The state's farmers sell apples, wheat and livestock to Russia and dozens of other countries. Agriculture alone accounted for $2 billion in foreign sales.

In Vancouver, Washington, along the state's border with Oregon to the south, the Weyerhaeuser Company does $1 billion in foreign sales of wood products, most of it around the Pacific Rim.

Not surprisingly, all of these exporting companies are closely following WTO deliberations in Seattle.

Boeing trade spokesman Tim Neale tells RFE/RL that the aviation and space giant strongly supports a "Seattle Round" of fresh trade negotiations. With aircraft sales in 145 countries around the world -- 10 more than the present membership of the WTO -- Boeing has a great stake in what Neale calls "rule-based trade."

He says: "We need consistency and rules everybody follows."

Boeing also wants China to be admitted to the WTO. Neale says: "We see China as our top foreign market over the next 20 years. We need China to be subject to the discipline of WTO rules."

Boeing also is embroiled with the European Union and Airbus in a continuing dispute over what Boeing calls government subsidies to the airplane consortium, its leading competitor. Neale says: "We need clear global rules that we reach through consensus and that are enforced by the WTO."

Another Boeing spokesman, Mary Foerster, says the company's largest overseas office is in Moscow. She says Boeing also buys titanium for its aircraft from Russia. The company also has offices in Prague, Warsaw and Budapest, whose director, Franz Viebock, is a former Russian-trained cosmonaut.

Speaking for Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Mark Thomas tells RFE/RL that the computer software giant is particularly eager to gain protection of "intellectual property." This is an area that includes more than the software that the giant firm sells worldwide. It also includes entertainment videos, toys and appliances, all of which can be, illegally, copied and sold at a fraction of their market value -- a practice known as piracy.

Thomas calls piracy "a huge problem" for Microsoft -- and often for companies that, unwittingly or not, buy pirated and often defective computer software. Thomas says "intellectual property rights are not protected" in international trade.

Chairman Bill Gates has listed other goals important to the company. In a commentary published Monday in the New York Times, Gates wrote: "The high-technology industry supports creation of a 'tariff-free zone' for economic transactions over the Internet, as well as other free-trade steps to encourage the growth of electronic commerce."

Gates said, "We support consistent international rules for the electronic marketplace to give companies the confidence to invest and consumers the benefit of greater choice.

Gates concluded: "we encourage the trade organization to finish putting in place the international treaty for protection of intellectual property rights, which is fundamental to the continued strength of American technology companies."

Washington state firms active in foreign trade tend to take a longer-term view of investing abroad. Before the collapse of Russia's ruble in August 1998, for example, Washington businesses sold nearly $300 million in goods and services to Russians. That abruptly plunged as a result of the turmoil. But Washington state trade officials continued to work with their new Russian partners -- among other things, by trying to keep trade routes open by facilitating international money transfers.

Neale of Microsoft says: "We have a very long-term perspective. We have to ride through the ups and downs. So when the market comes back, we are there."

An example of this perspective is furnished by Bellingham Cold Storage, a shipping firm in Bellingham, 150 kms north of Seattle. Before the ruble's collapse, the company was sending a monthly freighter filled with frozen food to Vladivostok and Bellingham's sister city of Nakhodka. That business dried up with the collapse of the ruble, says Vice President Stow Talbot, but the company continues to maintain relations in the region.

Talbot says the company today is loading frozen pork on a freighter bound for Nakhodka, part of a U.S. food-aid program for Russia. Following up on that shipment, Bellingham Cold Storage plans to bring managers from its counterpart in Nakhodka to its plant on Bellingham's waterfront for training.