As Gov. Asa Hutchinson looks to wrap up the last leg of a fruitful eight-day Far East trade mission, the state’s chief job recruiter said Friday (Nov. 3) he is hopeful that President Donald Trump’s upcoming trip to Asia is similarly positive despite the shadow of recent indictments by U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
“I have had meetings with business leaders here, I’ve been in meetings with government officials here, and we’ve had casual conversations and we’ve talked about U.S.-Asian relationships …, and in no circumstances, did anybody bring up the Mueller investigations or the recent indictments,” Hutchinson said during a Skype-enabled conference call from his hotel in Shanghai, China.
Hutchinson made his comments to reporters at the State Capitol just as President Trump prepares to depart on a 12-day visit to Asia, which will include stops in Japan and China, as well as South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Trump’s longest overseas trip to date will partly overlap with the Arkansas trade delegation’s third visit to the Far East.
While Hutchinson and his team will head to Japan Friday to discuss new economic development prospects, Trump and his large delegation will land in Tokyo on Sunday, where he is scheduled to play golf with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of talks to discuss the North Korean nuclear threat and other issues.
After Hutchinson and state economic development officials head back to Arkansas on Tuesday from Japan, Trump and Air Force One will head to South Korea to speak to that country’s national assembly and then head one day later to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping for bilateral meetings and other cultural and business events.
Speaking from Shanghai, Hutchinson said there was a “lot of energy” in China during his delegation trip to the growing economic giant and ahead of President Trump’s visit there next week. One of Hutchinson’s important meetings held this week occurred with U.S. Chinese Ambassador Terry Branstad, the former governor of Iowa.
“We had a good visit with (Branstad), and I was able to raise issues with him, with his agriculture and economic development counselors about the importance of opening markets here in China to Arkansas poultry and rice,” Hutchinson said, adding that an agreement has been signed to speed up the protocols for bilateral trade.
“They still have to go through some inspection protocols first, and I urged them to be expedited so we can get this market opened to Arkansas farmers,” he said. In addition, Hutchinson said he and AEDC executive director Mike Preston made visits to each of the five Chinese companies that have made commitments to locate businesses in Arkansas.
One of those visits was to the Auhui Province, where the Arkansas delegation met with executives for Hefei Risever Machinery Co., a Chinese manufacturer of steel components for heavy equipment that announced a $20 million investment last week to build a factory in Jonesboro.
SHANDON PROVINCE STRONG TIES
Hutchinson and his team also traveled to Shandong Province, home to Sun Paper, Ruyi Technology Group, Pet Won Pet Products and Suzhou Tianyuan Garments Co. All four companies have signed agreements with Hutchinson in the past 18 months to bring large manufacturing operations to Arkansas.
“As I indicated before I left Arkansas, one of the purposes of this (trip) was to strengthen those relationships with the companies that have already committed to our state, and those meetings went very well,” the governor said. “The follow-up on those (five) announcements are very important to me.”
In April, AEDC announced that Pet Won would invest $5 million to locate a new pet-treat facility in Danville that would create 70 new jobs at a former 28,887-square-foot facility formerly owned by Petit Jean Poultry.
A month later, Ruyi announced it would locate its first manufacturing operation in North America in the Forrest City, creating up to 800 jobs that will pay more than $15 an hour when operational. The company, which is China’s largest cotton textile manufacturer, is investing $410 million to retrofit a 1.4 million square foot cotton-spinning, garment factory in the Delta town.
Exactly a year ago, Hutchinson also penned the deal with Suzhou Tianyuan, a Chinese sport apparel manufacturer that will invest more than $20 million and bring 400 jobs paying $14 an hour and benefits to the Little Rock area. That garment maker, which will produce sportswear for Adidas, Reebok and Armani, signed a lease to locate in the city’s industrial park on the Arkansas River.
Hutchinson’s last visit in Shandong Province was with Sun Paper, the large paper products maker that signed an agreement nearly two years ago to invest more than $1.3 billion to build a bio-products mill in South Arkansas that will create 250 new jobs at an average salary of $52,000 a year.
The globetrotting Arkansas governor said, despite recent pronouncements by Chinese President Xi Jinping that the Far East economic giant would begin to pullback on U.S. and other foreign investments to focus on the country’s own internal growth, there are still opportunities for Arkansas to close deals with Chinese companies, especially in the manufacturing sector.
“Whenever we got what I thought was in the window of early Chinese investments in the U.S. in recruiting five companies to (Arkansas), I actually thought the investment opportunities would diminish and would not be available in the coming years,” Hutchinson said. “This trip has persuaded otherwise.”
Hutchinson later reiterated that he believes President Trump’s visit to China will strengthen Arkansas ties in that country, especially related to foreign-investment in manufacturing. “Our opportunities are very significant going into the future,” the governor said. “And … leading up to President Trump’s visit, there is a lot of discussion here and lot of excitement. President Jinping has described this as a state-plus visit by President Trump, so I expect his visit here will be very positive for Arkansas.”
After Hutchinson lands back in Arkansas Tuesday night, he will have made seven international trips since taking office in January 2015. In his first year in office, Hutchinson made trade visits to Cuba, Europe, and the Far East, where he laid the groundwork for the Sun Paper and other smaller deals.
Following the 2016 fiscal session, he led a state delegation to Farnborough International Airshow in England for a major trade exhibition for the aerospace and defense industries. In September 2016, Hutchinson and Preston’s economic development staff firmed up the Sun Paper project and cultivated other Far East prospects considering locating to Arkansas.
After emerging from the 2017 legislative session, Hutchinson led a trade delegation on a seven-day European trade mission that included stops in France, Germany and Israel. During Hutchinson’s tenure, top AEDC staff have also visited international trade shows and conferences without the governor or Preston.