Asia Matters for America: Perspectives from the Other Washington

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by Sean Connell
A view of Skagit County, Washington, from the town of La Conner looking towards Mount Baker. Image: Sean Connell.

US-Asia relations are, in many ways, a local affair. Although significant attention has been given to the Obama Administration’s “rebalance to Asia,” US states, regions, and cities have long been at the forefront of the nation in focusing attention on the Asia-Pacific region. Through flows of trade and investment, immigration, military engagement and security alliances, and increasing opportunities to travel, study, work and live in each other’s countries, the fabric connecting the United States and Asia is increasingly interwoven at the local level even as national policy is made in the US and regional capitals. 

How do developments in US states and cities reflect the broader scope of why Asia matters for America? How do they influence and contribute to relations between the United States and its Asian partners? These are important questions for policy makers to consider, especially at a time when dynamic shifts and changes both in America and Asia are reshaping relationships and roles, and stand to generate effects and impacts reverberating across US communities.

Washington State and its communities offer a microcosm of these dynamics within US-Asia relations. Asia has long been a leading destination for the agricultural and natural resources, manufactured goods, and high-tech services that drive Washington’s economy. Home to a large Asian-American community, Washington’s Asian immigrants contributed to developing its economy from early territorial days, and today play a leading role in the state’s politics and most innovative industries. Washington’s military installations are crucial strategic assets within the United States’ Asia-Pacific security infrastructure.

Skagit County, Washington, the region in which I work, is representative of these trends. Located halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, the region is home to some of Washington’s most fertile agricultural lands, and Asian markets have long been an important destination for local agriculture and aquaculture. One of Skagit County’s largest agriculture producers, Sakuma Brothers Farms, is led by a fourth-generation Japanese-American family that started berry growing in the Skagit Valley during the 1930s and today exports its produce around the world. The region’s advanced manufacturers supply key components for the aerospace sector that dominates Washington exports to Asia. Skagit County is a center of the state’s petroleum industry, and local refineries look to Asia as an important export market for byproducts including sulphur and xylene. Asian-invested firms in Skagit County range from seed companies and wood product manufacturers to airplane interior component manufacturers. The area is home to many military and civilian employees based at nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, for which Asia-Pacific security developments have important implications. Skagit’s spectacular natural setting and famed tulip fields draw visitors from Asia and beyond.

Major economic and security developments in Asia have impacts here. Just as significant, many important local debates—such as on new sources of economic development, conservation and sustainability, and promoting equitable growth—increasingly resonate in Asia-Pacific communities. This opens the door to opportunities for mutual learning and collaboration in these and other areas that, up until now, have often been outside the realm of international engagement. 

These dynamics are not unique to Washington—indeed, you can find them across the United States—yet they offer informative examples of US communities at the nexus of these trends. They also make Washington an ideal testing ground for creative approaches for building partnerships and connections with counterparts across Asia. Over the coming weeks, this column will explore and report on how developments in Washington across a range of these areas reflect, and are contributing to, US-Asia relations.

Sean Connell is a guest contributor to Asia Matters for America. He is employed by the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (Washington), and is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. This is an ongoing, multi-part series on the impacts and interrelationships between Washington State and the Asia-Pacific region. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any organization with which the author is affiliated.