THE United States' Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) wants a front-row seat in the surging economic growth in China - now its number one customer in Asia. Ex-Im chairman Kenneth Brody yesterday said the bank had just signed a letter of intent with the State Development Bank and was expanding activities with the civil aviation agency, which discussed their requirements. In talks in China, they 'talked specifically about six airports and substantial financing that they hoped would be done with us'. Ex-Im also held talks with the fast-growing China Southern Airlines during its trip to the mainland this month. The US bank - an independent government agency which provides 'soft loans' to help fund overseas sales of US goods and services - provided US$4.6 billion worth of US exports to Asia in fiscal 1994, from $4 billion in the previous year. Of this, $1.1 billion was for China. The figure for the previous fiscal year was $644 million. The bank was considering putting a full-time representative in Beijing, said Mr Brody, who said he liked what he saw during his visit. 'I must say that I'm very impressed with an economy where when you talk about a cycle, the down point is higher than the best growth that Western countries hope to achieve. I think there's a perspective [on China] that needs to be had,' he said. China's officials also impressed him with their professionalism. 'I think they're doing a terrific job and I was very impressed by the capability of the people I met - more so than I expected and I expected to be impressed,' he said. 'I think that the Chinese that we dealt with are aggressive, hard and good bargainers - no less so than they should be and I respect that. I don't look at that so much as trying to get a special deal as trying to get what they believe appropriate for their circumstances.' Mr Brody has said he saw major opportunities for American exports, and said Ex-Im could pull out all the stops for China lending. 'Power is obviously a major arena. Aircraft has been a major arena and will continue to be a major arena. Airport construction and equipment for aircraft like traffic control equipment look to be promising new areas,' he said. 'An important and interesting fact surrounding our lending capabilities is that we have no limits on the amount that we will lend to China, which makes us very different from virtually all other financial institutions.' In the field of project finance, Ex-Im has ambitions of being a world leader. 'To do this we need to educate important markets on our capabilities,' he said. 'In fiscal 1994, Ex-Im authorised financing totalling $300 million for two project finance cases,' he said. 'Our newly-formed project finance group is reviewing 10 cases totalling $3.4 billion in financing; and the Asia region accounts for over 70 per cent of that total dollar value.' He warned that Ex-Im would not let American exporters be undercut through soft loans from other exporters' home countries. 'We are a matcher. The limit will be set by those who initiate,' said Mr Brody, emphasising that Ex-Im was looking out for the interests of American exporters. 'The reason for that [soft loans] is we are not interested in trying to conduct a subsidy war but we are very interested in making sure that US exporters have a level playing field,' he said.