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Celebrating Forty Years of Trade with China

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April 18, 2019

On a cool and drizzly April day in 1979, Seattle was visited by a humble 637-foot freighter on a mission to take grain from American farmers to the markets of China. This small act may seem insignificant and commonplace today, but at the time, it was a radical change and its impact lingers today. 

The ship was the M.V. Liu Lin Hai, a Chinese vessel, and her arrival resumed direct trade between the United States and the People’s Republic of China for the first time since 1949.  The U.S. and China had severed diplomatic and trade relationships for three decades after Mao Zedong (1893-1976) came to power.

In February 1979, Chairman Deng Xiaoping visited Seattle on a historic goodwill tour to the United States, which marked the start of normalizing Sino-U.S. relations. In March of that year, the Letitia Lykes, a ship owned by a client of Seattle’s Garvey Schubert Barer law firm, entered the harbor in Shanghai, and became the first American ship to call on China since 1949. On April 18, COSCO’s M. V. Liu Lin Hai sailed into Elliott Bay and called at the Port of Seattle on its maiden voyage. Local company Seattle Stevedoring (which grew into SSA Marine) handled and loaded the ship with grain from the American heartland. These two voyages signaled the reopening of trade between China and the United States.

Sailing into Elliott Bay at 10:30 a.m. on April 18, 1979, the M.V. Liu Lin Hai docked at Smith Cove, between Magnolia and Queen Anne. A crowd of 300 welcomed the ship as a Navy brass band played and speeches from dignitaries. After the festivities she called at the Port’s grain elevators at Terminal 86 and was loaded with 37,000 tons of corn (nearly 1.5 million bushels, valued at more than $5 million) from Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska for her return voyage to Shanghai. During this call the ship’s crew had time for sightseeing and ping pong matches with local players.

Lui Lin Hai Calls the Port of Seattle April 18, 1979
M.V. Lui Lin Hai calls the Port of Seattle April 18, 1979

Northwest leaders including Senator Warren Magnuson had long advocated for normalizing relations with China. That fact — plus Seattle’s potential as a trading partner — is seen as the reason why Seattle was honored as the first port of call for a Chinese vessel.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of several milestone events in the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Washington State and China have a long history of economic and cultural ties, and Washington State has often been a leader in forging U.S. and China relations.

Washington State is a critical nexus for U.S.-China relations, as the Puget Sound ports facilitate the movement of billions of dollars in cargo in both directions. China has been, and continues to be, a major market for Washington State products, and is increasingly a source of foreign direct investment into the state.
Today we stand at the crossroads in China’s relationship with the United States. 

More than ever, sustaining the relationship and partnerships between China and the U.S. is critically important. The Port of Seattle is honored to remember these historic events of 1979 as we look to the future of our U.S.-China relations.


Fast Facts about trade between the Port of Seattle and China

The relationship between the Port of Seattle and China has only grown in importance in the last 40 years to the benefit of both. Port of Seattle has a sister port relationship with the Chinese port of Shanghai (1979) and a friendship port relationship with the ports of Qingdao (1995) and Dalian (2007).

China and the Pacific Northwest, By the Numbers:

Ship IconChina-NWSA Maritime Cargo*

  • 1,092,980 TEU
  • $33.4 Billion in total International Foreign Trade Value
Top Imports to China by value in 2018
Machinery     $8,969 million
Toys  $4,789 million
Furniture     $2,515 million
Clothing     $1,743 million
Base Metals   $1,921 million

Top Exports to China by value in 2018

Oil Seeds     $807 million
Machinery $545 million
Wood Pulp $225 million
Wood Products $209 million
Base Metals $207 million

China has become the top trading partner with the Pacific Northwest

Trade with China
Data from the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma


Plane IconChina and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Not only is China a major maritime trading partner, The Port of Seattle is is a major gateway to China by air through the Port owned and operated Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. We are a key gateway for both air cargo and passengers to the major Chinese hubs of for business and leisure travel.  


  • $1.2 billion, led by Digital Processing Units


  • $2.3 billion, led by Electronic Integrated Circuits and Micro assemblies

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is the Northwest's Gateway to China

Direct Departures from Sea-Tac Airport to Chinese destinations, 2018





Hong Kong




* Maritime Cargo includes cargo from the Northwest Seaport Alliance, a partnership of the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma.

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