Now, the country is the state's largest trading partner.
That's why more than 100 people from Washington state led by Gov. Jay Inslee traveled to China in November to meet with business leaders and entrepreneurs in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, one of the busiest container ports in China.
The delegates, including four business people from Snohomish County, represented agriculture, ports and economic development organizations, clean technology, educational institutions and health sectors, among other industries.
"We export cotton picker combines to China," said Les Reardanz, deputy executive director at the Port of Everett. "We wanted to see what was there, meet some folks and get the lay of the land."
Washington state exports more than $75 billion a year in goods and services around the world, and of that more than $14 billion is exported to China, according to the U.S. Census bureau. Those goods include aircraft, apples and cherries and other state produce and specialty food including Almond Roca, produced by more than 9,000 companies.
The November trip served as an opportunity to feature trade with Washington state. The delegates were guests at the third annual Biotechnology Industry Organization held in Beijing, an event also attended by Gary Locke, the former Washington state governor who is stepping down as the U.S. ambassador to China this year.
Leaders from biotech, investment and pharmaceutical companies throughout Europe, Asia and North America, met to discuss business and China's biotech sector.
Reardanz said that learning about China's clean energy efforts were also of interest. The country, with a population of more than 1.3 billion people, hopes to surpass all European Union standards by 2030.
Chinese leaders talked about resource planning and environmental sustainability with experts on climate change and energy.
Discussions on clean energy was also an emphasis for James Donaldson, owner and director of The Donaldson Physical Therapy Clinic in Mill Creek.
"I learned a lot about what China's environmental issues are," Donaldson said.
The other two people from Snohomish County who were listed as being part of the trip were Russ Weed, vice president of business development and general counsel at UniEnergy Technologies in Mukilteo, and Jens U. Quistgaard, president and CEO of Mirabilis Medica Inc. in Bothell.
Donaldson is passionate about education and was excited about Shoreline Community College signing a memorandum of understanding during the trip.
The agreement is in partnership with a Chinese investor who is developing student housing that will meet demand for international students visiting Washington. It's a $45 million investment for the state.
Donaldson spends a few months a year in China working in business, education and sports. The 7-foot, 2-inch native of England played backsetball at Washington State University before going on to a NBA career with the Seattle Supersonics and Dallas Mavericks and with teams in Europe.
Having spent so much time in China, Donaldson knows that many business partnerships are relationship driven.
"It's challenging to get under way without a relationship with people in Asia," he said.
Taking delegates to meet and greet Chinese hosts is a positive way of developing those relationships.
As well as the world of technology, agriculture and services, the group delved into China's business and educational programs, and sports.
"I pretty much held up that end," Donaldson said. "The Chinese are crazy about basketball."
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