By Elaine Kurtenbach
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SHANGHAI — U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is leading an American trade mission to China, aiming to boost clean energy technology sales as one industry leader announced a fresh contract to supply components for Chinese wind turbines.
The visit, one of several by U.S. Cabinet officials, precedes annual talks called the Strategic Economic Dialogue, a top-level forum for thrashing out grievances on trade, currency, and other policy issues.
Locke, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk will attend these talks, which begin Monday in Beijing. They come as the two countries are mending ties after a bout of friction over various issues, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
The Commerce Department’s trade mission intends to help deliver on President Barack Obama’s pledge to double U.S. exports over the next five years and create 2 million jobs.
“Promoting American exports, particularly here in Asia, will create more jobs in America while improving the lives of people around the world and introducing new products and services to local communities,” Locke said before leaving Hong Kong for Shanghai.
In Hong Kong, the U.S. and local governments signed an agreement on promoting American wines. On the Chinese mainland, Locke’s delegation will promote technologies related to clean energy, energy efficiency, and electric energy storage, transmission, and distribution in Asia.
Last Tuesday, American Superconductor Corp. announced a new electrical components order from Sinovel Wind, China’s largest wind turbine maker. Beijing-based Sinovel, ranked the world’s third-largest wind turbine maker worldwide, has so far ordered $1 billion from AMSC.
China’s potential market for renewable energy is huge. Total investment by the government and private sector last year was $34.6 billion, nearly double U.S. spending of $18.6 billion, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
But U.S. and European companies complain they are being squeezed out of the market as Beijing strives to build up its own suppliers of wind, solar, and other equipment.
So far, Washington and Beijing have avoided a formal dispute over clean energy and have emphasized cooperation in research. But they are embroiled in plenty of other disputes, over currency policy, trade in various goods, and Chinese policies favoring local companies at the expense of foreign competitors.
As the European financial crisis deepens, China appears to be pulling back from expected moves to loosen its currency’s tie to the U.S. dollar, saying the euro’s slide to four-year lows against the dollar is putting too much pressure on its own exporters.
China has kept the yuan at a rate of about 6.83 per dollar for nearly two years, seeking to cushion its exporters from the global financial crisis. Some economists reckon the yuan is undervalued by up to 40 percent against the dollar, giving Chinese exporters an unfair advantage in overseas markets.
“The current situation for exports is not optimistic, and financial markets remain volatile,” Commerce Ministry spokesman Yao Jian said Monday at a news briefing that the yuan has gained 14.5 percent against the euro in recent weeks, obliging Beijing to focus on “maintaining stability.”
Yao also reiterated Beijing’s complaints over U.S. export controls that it says are restricting high-valued high-tech exports.
In a move some in the industry said was politically timed, a major Chinese steel firm, Anshan Steel, announced plans Monday to invest $175 million in Mississippi-based U.S. Steel Development Corp. in exchange for gaining technology to turn scrap into steel using electric arc furnaces.
“This is as politically driven an investment as it could possibly be,” said a note in Steel Market Intelligence, a newsletter published by Michelle Applebaum Research, a Chicago-based consulting firm. It noted that China’s steel exports to the United States had doubled from a year before.
Among the 24 companies selected to attend the mission was MulvannyG2 Architecture, which has an office in Bellevue. MulvannyG2’s President, Ming Zhang, will exchange ideas on sustainable building design with Chinese government and business leaders.
Locke was also visiting the Shanghai engine center of United Technologies Corp’s jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, highlighting U.S. ambitions in China’s aviation sector as the country develops its own jet aircraft. ♦