In a rare interview, a top executive of the China Ocean Shipping Co. in Beijing expressed anger, confusion and frustration over the ongoing controversy related to the company's plan to expand into a larger terminal at the Port of Long Beach.

"Cosco is not operating a fleet of warships. We are a company of merchant vessels," said Gao Wei Jie, Cosco's director of transportation in Beijing. "Unfortunately, a handful of persons have been slandering us through the news media."

Indeed, the Port of Long Beach's plan to build Cosco a new $200 million terminal on the site of the former Long Beach Naval Station has elicited a chorus of opposition.

Prominent among those opponents are two Republican congressmen from San Diego Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Duncan Hunter, who has introduced legislation to block the Cosco project, calling it a national security risk.

"Cosco's involvement in arms smuggling and the recent unchecked shipment of machine guns and grenade launchers through Long Beach is unacceptable. My legislation will prevent a Communist Chinese beachhead at the naval station," said Hunter in a March 20 prepared statement.

Cosco has been operating at the Port of Long Beach since 1979 and has been a model tenant, according to port officials.

But opposition from preservationists seeking to save a number of historic structures on the 55-year-old base prompted an L.A. Superior Court judge to order Long Beach to terminate its deal with Cosco, throwing the 145-acre cargo facility and on-dock railyard project into doubt.

"Everything is off the table now," said Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill, who recently returned from a trip to Beijing, where a delegation of city officials met with Cosco President Zhen Zhong and three other executives.

O'Neill characterized her delegation's meeting as "embarrassing."

"We had to be perfectly honest with them about what was happening," she said. "It was not the news they wanted to hear."

Despite O'Neill's pessimism, Gao indicated that Cosco remains committed to Long Beach, and is not entertaining recent offers by the rival Port of Los Angeles to build the company a cargo facility at the L.A. port's new Pier 400 development.

"We have already committed to the (Long Beach Naval Station) lease agreement," Gao said. "There is no need to discuss further at this moment."

Cosco is the Long Beach port's fastest-growing tenant, and one of the world's largest shipping lines, handling about 25 percent of all U.S.-China trade. China is Southern California's second-largest trading partner, with more than $18 billion worth of goods moving between L.A. and China per year.

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