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America’s Governors Matter for U.S.-Asia Relations

It’s not just Washington that shapes U.S. relations with the region; ties at the state level have long been key as well.

By Samuel Lucas McMillan for

Asia’s relations with the United States are shaped by U.S. presidents such as Richard Nixon and Barack Obama, but America’s governors also influenced political linkages and economic partnerships. This is illustrated by the recent meeting of Chinese president Xi Jinping with California governor Jerry Brown as well as his meetings with three governors in Beijing earlier this year.

But these types of activities are not new. U.S. states’ leaders have been involved on economic, cultural, and political fronts with the Asia-Pacific region for over fifty years. Since the 1960s, governors have traveled to recruit foreign direct investment (FDI) in Asia and pursue trade opportunities; opened many offices abroad (beginning with New York creating a Tokyo office in 1963); set up transnational associations with political and business leaders such as the Midwest U.S.-Japan Association and Southeast U.S.-Japan Association; hosted visits from Asian officials; and lobbied policymakers in Washington, D.C. and occasionally commented openly on foreign relations issues.

Governors from the American South first sought to build a relationship with Asia. James Cobb wrote, “By the 1970s European and Japanese industrialists were almost as likely to be contacted by southern development agencies as were their counterparts in the United States.” One of these internationally oriented governors was Jimmy Carter. Reflecting on his time as governor of Georgia while serving as U.S. president, Carter said, “I probably devoted 25 percent of my time to either recruiting investments in Georgia from other States in the Nation and also from overseas, or trying to sell Georgia products to foreign countries.” Altogether, during his time as governor Carter visited ten nations and established overseas offices, including one in Japan.

Southern governors of the 1950s and 1960s were encouraged to look abroad for investment for two reasons: first, they had already recruited many businesses from more industrialized areas in the United States and second, foreign business leaders were less biased against the South and its socioeconomic problems. Former governors also told me that foreign business leaders were encouraged by financial incentives such as lower tax rates, descriptions of citizens’ strong work ethic, and training programs set up by technical colleges.

Several scholars have explained how some governors’ efforts recruit FDI from Asia were transformational for their state’s economy. This includes Ohio’s Jim Rhodes recruitment of Honda in the 1970s, and Lamar Alexander’s many visits to Japan to lure Nissan to Tennessee in the 1980s. Kentucky’s Martha Layne Collins visited Japan eight times before convincing Toyota to build its first major investment in North America. Toyota would end up creating 3,500 jobs in Kentucky before Collins left office in 1987, and has since added thousands of more jobs. With a formalized business culture, former governors tell me that they seem to be particularly needed in Asia.

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While FDI attraction was the primary goal of some governors, others concentrated on export promotion. For example, the American state of Washington’s trade connections to the Pacific Rim are due to the aggressive global agendas of governors Booth Gardner, Mike Lowry, Gary Locke (later U.S. secretary of commerce and currently ambassador to China), and Christine Gregoire.

Importantly, governors’ travels to Asia have not only been to long-time American allies such as Japan. Rather, governors have been on the forefront of expanding diplomatic ties and economic linkages. For instance, Washington governor Dan Evans traveled to the Russian Far East in 1975, while Ohio’s Jim Rhodes visited China to discuss economic partnerships in 1979. Similarly, Arkansas Governor (and future U.S. president) Bill Clinton traveled to Taiwan four times. Clinton’s first visit in 1979 was the same year that the White House broke off diplomatic relations.

And governors continue to travel to Asia. In 2013 alone, governors from California, Idaho, Iowa, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin have already led Asian trade and investment missions in 2013. Florida’s governor will travel to Japan this fall and North Carolina’s governor recently announced a trip to India in 2014.

As FDI from Asia and opportunities for exports increased, U.S. states have opened more offices in the region. In 1985 there were 26 offices in Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and South Korea, and 76 by 1994. Japan had offices from 39 U.S. states by 1989. According to the U.S.-China Business Council, 18 U.S. states now have trade offices in China with some states maintaining more than one.

Although the total number of governors’ trips overseas may have declined in recent years and some U.S. states have closed offices abroad, some of this is due to the extensive global networks that U.S. states created, not just their budget woes or a legislature’s short attention span. With Asia’s economic possibilities—particularly for U.S. exports—governors will continue to pay attention to this region.

A few governors, such as New Mexico’s Bill Richardson, have worked on high-profile diplomatic issues related to North Korea while in office or openly commented on China’s human rights abuses like New York’s George Pataki. But these activities cannot be generalized across all governorships. However, many governors periodically lobby Congress and the White House about economic and trade policy concerns. For example, North Dakota governor Ed Schafer and Washington’s Gary Locke worked to gain support for trade relations with China, an effort endorsed by 47 governors. As governor of Texas, George W. Bush supported bringing China into the World Trade Organization.

America’s governors will continue to play a role in U.S.-Asia relations, especially given the size of the economies of U.S. states. Indeed, subnational leaders across the world, especially those in federal systems, are increasingly involved in foreign relations. Even in a unitary system such as China, provincial governors have participated in foreign economic relations for decades. As China’s economy grows, these officials will likely contribute to foreign relations in visible ways as well as behind-the-scenes.

Clearly, the work of trans-Pacific relations does not only belong only to heads of states.

Samuel Lucas McMillan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lander University and author of The Involvement of State Governments in U.S. Foreign Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).