By LARRY KANTER
Since taking office in 1993, L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan has taken just two trade missions one to Israel, and an abbreviated trip to Asia marred by Riordan’s decision to cancel an audience with the Japanese prime minister.
But the mayor criticized in the past for giving short shrift to foreign trade plans to make up for any shortcomings next month by leading a delegation of local political, trade, tourism and business leaders on a 15-day mission to Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan.
Trade industry officials and mayoral aides say the trip comes at a crucial juncture. With Asia’s economy on the ropes, the Riordan visit will help shore up relationships and convey the message that Los Angeles is not just a fair-weather friend.
“In international trade, you need to be in the markets in the good times and bad times,” said Carlos Valderrama, director of Latin American operations for the law firm Carlsmith Ball Wichman Case & Ichiki.
The mission was partially inspired by the response of the state of Texas to the Mexican economic crisis, said Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo.
Following the devaluation of the peso, Texas officials organized a series of trade missions to Mexico, which allowed local firms not only to take advantage of the strong dollar but to build new relationships with Mexican partners.
Texas’ two-way trade with Mexico now exceeds that of California, despite the fact that California has a much larger Mexican American population.
Delgadillo said the city hopes to duplicate that success in Asia.
“Most of what’s happening Asia will be short-lived,” he said. “And as it turns around, the relationships built in times of need will be very profitable in times of plenty.”
Asia is Southern California’s leading trading partner, with more than $120 billion worth of cargo flowing through local airports and seaports to and from the region each year. Economists have warned that an expected slowdown in Asian economic activity, coupled with the continuing surge in the value of the U.S. dollar, will exacerbate America’s trade imbalance and take an inevitable toll on some of L.A.’s key industries including technology, entertainment and tourism.
Riordan aides say the mayor will be traveling with a number of local business executives, but they wouldn’t identify any of them. Riordan himself said last week that his office was still awaiting confirmation on the names.
This will be Riordan’s first trip to Asia since 1995, when he cut short his visit to be in Los Angeles for the announcement of a verdict in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial.
“The more we can do to improve trade ties with the East, the better it will be for L.A.,” said Riordan, who departs Feb. 20. “We hope to come back with some firm contracts to add to the capacity of our port. We also want to make some solid connections with private-sector companies to improve our trade with the East.”
The mayor also has one very specific objective in mind: convincing the Chinese government-owned container shipping line, China Ocean Shipping Co., or Cosco, to locate its new terminal in the Port of Los Angeles, instead of Long Beach.
One of the world’s largest shipping lines, Cosco handles about 25 percent of U.S.-China trade. China is the region’s second-largest trading partner, with more than $18 billion worth of cargo moving between L.A. and China a year.
Cosco currently calls at the Port of Long Beach, but is rapidly outgrowing its facilities there. Port officials had hoped to build the company at new, 145-acre container terminal on the site of the former Long Beach Naval Station. But those plans collapsed amid lawsuits by preservationists seeking to protect historic structures on the property, and the project’s future remains very much in question.
Riordan and L.A. Harbor officials have offered the shipping line a state-of-the-art container terminal on the port’s 315-acre Pier 400 development.
“We have the capability to move much faster than Long Beach,” said Al Fierstine, director of business development for the Port of L.A.
But on Feb. 17, Long Beach will send its own harbor delegation on a two-week mission to meet with shipping executives in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
“We’re going to talk about some of the issues regarding Naval properties’ reuse and put to bed any concerns that might be arising from that process,” said port political director Gus Hein. “We’re aware of L.A., but we think we have an outstanding relationship with Cosco.”
Long Beach officials remain optimistic that the U.S. Navy will grant permission for a shipping terminal on the abandoned property. But neither they nor L.A. officials could say how long Cosco is willing to wait.
Besides seeking to persuade Cosco to remain committed to Long Beach, Hein said the mission “will give the port a better understanding of how the currency crisis will impact Long Beach and the trade community specifically in terms of how we can better prepare to handle the change in inflows and outflows of cargo.”
Although Riordan aides would not release any names, they said the delegation will include officials from San Diego-based TrizecHahn Centers, the Getty Center and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
TrizecHahn plans to develop a major tourist attraction in Hollywood. Officials from that company, the Getty Center and the Philharmonic will be with Riordan for the official opening of the L.A. Convention and Visitors Bureau’s first international office in Tokyo.
In addition, Delgadillo said officials from local multimedia and technology companies will join the mayor in Hong Kong and Taiwan, in an effort to attract investment in L.A. high-tech start-ups.