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Century of the Pacific still a bit cloudy

Anyone remember the Century of the Pacific?

Time was around here when you couldn’t get through a lunch speech on the rubber-chicken-and-salmon circuit or a well-meaning op-ed piece without reading the phrase.

The premise was that a focus on Europe was so 20th-century. The big story was that the future had picked up and moved halfway around the globe, to the Pacific Rim. That was where the action was in population growth, economic growth, trade growth, culture, innovation.

The Old World was old news. The cities that would matter in the 21st century were Pacific Rim cities.

How clever of cities like Tacoma to have placed themselves right where the future was setting up shop.

All right – so it was really Seattle that got the ink as one of those 21st century Pacific Rim cities, what with companies like Microsoft and Boeing and cultural and economic connections like Ichiro (Suzuki, the Mariners baseball player), Nintendo and the APEC summit. But Tacoma, with its port, could tag along and catch a little of what was spilled from the grown-ups’ table.

So, 10 or 11 years in (depending on which school of thought you subscribe to as to when centuries actually start), how’s that Century of the Pacific working out?

We’re not sure.

We’re pretty certain that Asia is going to matter a lot in this new century. How could it not, with three of the top four on the list of the world’s most populous countries?

What we’re no longer certain about, however, is whether it will matter in a good or bad way (at least from our perspective), and what role we have in Asia’s long-term development – or if we even have a role.

China – alone – is good for a continent’s worth of uncertainty. We’re not sure if China is friend or foe. We’re not sure if we’ll get a share of China’s economic growth. Then again, we’re not sure we’ll want a share if China’s economy, as some suspect, proves to be an overinflated bubble overdue for popping (a subject with which Americans are all too familiar).

Nor are we any more certain about the other major Pacific Rim players. Will Japan ever get out of its long-running economic torpor? Does recent upheaval in Thailand portend trouble in other countries? Can Indonesia and Malaysia maintain relative stability? Is Vietnam really the next emerging Asian tiger, following the footsteps of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore? And good luck figuring out what North Korea’s Dear Leader might pull next – or what happens to that benighted country once he passes.

Those are global geopolitical and economic questions that make us wonder what America’s future is on the Pacific Rim. More locally, we’ve got some big questions about whether our corner of the map is more than geographically a part of the Pacific Rim.

For example: Boeing announced this week it had delivered its 800th plane to China. How many more will there be if the Chinese continue to develop their own commercial aerospace sector? (For that matter, how many more if other Pacific Rim nations including Japan, Canada and Russia, and an Atlantic Rim nation, Brazil, make inroads into the Asian market with their own aircraft development programs.)

We’re not sure how to snag some of the Chinese investment flowing to North America (to Vancouver real estate). We’re not sure we want it (a debate we had when it was Japan that would supposedly buy up everything). We’re not sure if the Chinese will want to invest here, given the unhappy experience of many foreign investors in U.S. companies and assets.

We’re not sure how we leverage our port to participate in expanded trade with China and the rest of Asia. We’re not sure if there’s anything to leverage, given that much trade activity consists of us waving at metal boxes of Chinese-produced goods as they head east. We’re not sure if we’ll have even that much of a role in trade, what with traffic being bled away by the new container terminal in Prince Rupert and the expansion of the Panama Canal.

We’re not sure what prominence, if any, the Northwest will have when people think about the Pacific Rim. The ties get more tenuous all the time. Microsoft isn’t even the leading tech company in this country; Boeing isn’t a Seattle-based company. And Ichiro can’t play forever.

You haven’t heard much mention of the Century of the Pacific lately, because our attention has been focused on developments occurring along considerably smaller bodies of water – the Hudson and the Potomac. What Asia does to, with, about or against us is of less import at the moment than what we’re doing to ourselves.

But the Century of the Pacific didn’t go away because our attention did. Add all those not-so little questions together and you get one huge puzzle – does the Century of the Pacific still include us?

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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