Asian Partners Look to Washington As They Grow in the Global Aerospace Industry

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by Sean Connell
Boeing jets for customers including All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Korean Airlines (KAL) awaiting delivery at Boeing's Everett, Washington manufacturing facility. Image: Sean Connell.

Washington State’s aerospace industry illustrates both the increasing importance of Asia for the US economy, and significant ways in which US-Asia economic interrelationships are evolving. Aerospace is Washington’s economic engine, and the state’s aerospace connections with Asia are both historic and critical to the state’s economy. In 2015, Washington exported more than $26 billion worth of aerospace products and parts to Asia, reaching almost every country in the region. Asian airlines are among the largest customers for Washington-made Boeing jets; All Nippon Airways was the launch customer for the 787.

The aerospace roots between Washington and Asia run deep. When the Boeing Company was founded in Seattle in 1916, its first engineer was Wong Tsu, a Chinese graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later returned to China and played a leading role in establishing the country’s aircraft manufacturing industry. Today, Asia is an increasingly important partner for Washington’s aerospace sector in project development and investment—more and more, Washington aerospace is “made with Asia.” An interactive map of the international supply chain for Washington-built airplanes identifies components from Australia, China, India, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and an even broader range of Asian markets from which aerospace parts are imported. Moreover, this does not include the expansive linkages among aerospace suppliers in Washington and across Asia. For example, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington State in September 2015, Boeing announced several new cooperative activities with China, including opening a 737 airplane completion facility in China, its first large manufacturing facility overseas. Also, during President Xi’s Seattle visit, Kenmore Air Harbor, which manufactures floatplanes, signed an agreement with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China to design, certify, and manufacture floats that will help convert Chinese-made Harbin Y-12 turboprops into seaplanes.

Asian partners continue to look to Washington as they seek to expand in the global aerospace industry. For years, Asian manufacturers of aerospace components have established and acquired operations in Washington. A short list of these companies include Toray Composites America in Frederickson, Jamco America in Everett, Panasonic Avionics in Bothell, and Volant (owned by Singapore’s ST Engineering) in Burlington, among others. The Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), Japan’s first domestically developed airliner since the 1960s, will do flight testing in Moses Lake, Washington, and MRJ recently opened an engineering office in Seattle. Glasair Aviation, a manufacturer of small kit aircraft based in Arlington, Washington, and owned by China’s Hanxing Group, recently received Federal Aviation Administration certification for its new two-seater composite Merlin airplane. Washington has signed MOUs with Japan and some of its prefectures for aerospace cooperation, and the Gyeongsangnam-do and Jeollabuk-do Provinces in Korea recently sent a delegation to Washington to explore potential partnerships related to composites manufacturing.

Washington higher education institutions have made significant investments to strengthen and expand workforce training programs, and these have drawn increasing numbers of students from Asia, as well as the attention of Asian universities and communities looking to build a skilled workforce for aerospace. For example, Mie National University in Japan recently concluded an MOU with South Seattle College on aerospace workforce training. Also, the City of Kakamigahara in Japan recently signed an MOU with Everett Community College, including to conduct short programs in Everett for Kakamigahara middle school students focusing on the aerospace industry, and for a management-level group of technicians at the College’s Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Education Center.

As the aerospace sector continues its expansion in other US communities, these examples from Washington highlight some of the new connections being forged, and opportunities being generated for further expanding US business, education, and people-to-people linkages with Asia.

Sean Connell is a guest contributor to Asia Matters for America. He is employed by the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (Washington), and is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center. This is an ongoing, multi-part series on the impacts and interrelationships between Washington State and the Asia-Pacific region. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any organization with which the author is affiliated. For more in this series, see Part I herePart II here, and Part III here.