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Locke kicks off 11-day Asian trip to boost US exports with stop in HK


US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke stops off in Hong Kong tomorrow at the start of the first cabinet-level trade mission of the Obama administration.

Joined by representatives from 29 US companies, Locke will be promoting American clean energy technologies and services on an 11-day trip to China and Indonesia as part of the US initiative to double exports in the next five years.

'Innovative companies like these bringing emerging technologies to a dynamic new market are going to play a big role in meeting President Obama's ambitious goals laid out in his export initiative,' Locke said on Wednesday. He added that the mission would help meet the goals of China and Indonesia to curb emissions and boost energy efficiency.

American executives will also visit Shanghai and Beijing to make a bid for a growing market in green technology and services. They are competing with a mainland clean energy industry that is flush with investment, and has become a notable supplier to US and European markets.

But while Chinese firms like solar panel producer Suntech dominate their corner of the market nationwide, some analysts said there was ample potential for foreign companies to make inroads.

'There's definitely room for innovative technologies,' said Will Pearson, a global energy and natural resources analyst at the Eurasia Group, which assesses political risk for multinational companies.

A need in China for new wind and solar technologies, as well as advances in mitigating local manufacturing pollution and energy emissions, he said, could mean business for companies on the cutting edge.

United Solar Ovonic is among the firms vying for that edge. Martha Duggan, the vice-president for government and regulatory affairs at the Michigan-based company known as Uni-Solar, will meet in Hong Kong with utilities, energy and construction companies in hopes of boosting sales of a flexible solar laminate designed to be integrated into roofs.

'Today, our sales in China are not as significant as sales in Europe,' Duggan said. 'But we see a path forward and see developments that sales in China will continue to grow.'

The laminates are produced in the United States, and finished, assembled and distributed on the mainland through a joint venture in Tianjin, an arrangement Duggan says is 'floating all boats', creating jobs in China as well as the US.

But some sceptics in the US have questioned whether companies with a limited history of exporting to China can start now. 'Structurally, there are limits' to foreign companies' access to Chinese markets, says Derek Scissors, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Locke's presence 'won't make any difference', he said.

China recently lowered trade barriers for wind technology, a bright spot in a sometimes contentious relationship with the Obama administration on trade issues.

Disputes over China's currency valuation, US export controls on hi-tech products, and punitive tariffs by both sides are expected to be raised during the bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing following the trade mission.

At the press conference in Washington on Wednesday, Locke said US government officials would raise concerns about policies intended to promote indigenous innovation in China - at the unfair expense of foreign companies, they charge.

The US delegation includes such corporate heavy hitters as Dow Chemical, Boeing Commercial Airplanes and the coal producer Peabody Energy.

Locke will meet Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Secretary of the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah during his visit to Hong Kong.