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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah was in an international spotlight of sorts Wednesday, playing host to US-China 2011. It's a major conference aimed at improving relations between the two superpowers at the state and provincial levels.
More than 400 people converged on the Little America Hotel — a couple hundred of them from China, including top provincial leaders — as Gov. Gary Herbert hosted lunch with the chief executives of other states here for the National Governor's Association Conference, which starts Friday.
"We are honored to have east joining the west, and we look forward to improving our associations and economic opportunity as we have mutual benefit," Herbert told his guests.
"I think this event is of great historical significance," Zhao Hongzhu, party secretary of Zhejiang province, said through a translator.
The event comes on the heels of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to China, and a Utah trade mission to the country led by Herbert in April.
Utah exports to China have grown dramatically, and China is now Utah's top foreign trade partner — a relationship both sides hope to enhance.
"Working with the Chinese is a partnership, and it's a cultural thing. It's not just about numbers and cents. You've got to have a relationship," said Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development.
"(We're) strengthening trade ties, building relationships, and looking to future partnerships," said Dave Fiscus, director of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service in Utah.
High-tech, medicine and energy are all part of the mix for trade to a country with a rapidly growing middle class, as are agricultural products.
"They're eating more beef, they're drinking more milk. A lot of the intermountain hay goes out of Utah into China to support dairy farmers," said Mark Garfield, Zions Bank's senior vice president of international banking.
Companies from both sides say they're optimistic.
Levi Andersen, an international sales executive with High Protection Company, says gatherings like these are "extremely valuable. It allows us to meet with potential investors. It allows us to get our name out."
"It's a good beginning, a good beginning," said Anita Yin, president of Donghua.
One other area in which Utah and China hope to improve ties is tourism. There's a growing Chinese middle class, and Utah tourism officials hope to have more and more Chinese visitors come to the Beehive State.