Washington state leaders visiting China said yesterday that they are trying to persuade Chinese airlines to begin a direct flight from Beijing...

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Washington state leaders visiting China said yesterday that they are trying to persuade Chinese airlines to begin a direct flight from Beijing to Seattle.

Gov. Christine Gregoire made the case for opening a direct route to Seattle while in Beijing yesterday during an 11-day trade mission to Asia. The flight would help promote trade by cutting travel time by several hours, she said. Flights between Seattle and China typically go through San Francisco, Vancouver, B.C., or Tokyo.

Chinese airlines are interested in expanding overseas in the next few years and taking advantage of a new fleet of Boeing 787s set for delivery in 2008.

China’s boom in travel and construction, along with growing demand for things like processed food, software and wine, presents almost unlimited opportunities for Washington, Gregoire said in a conference call from Beijing.

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She met with State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, a top-ranking Chinese government official whom she had hosted at a Seattle dinner in July. Gregoire is leading a delegation of 56 representatives from agriculture, business and education. Former Gov. Gary Locke accompanied her for some of the meetings.

Everywhere the group went in Beijing it found signs of Washington companies. In China, they said, Washington state has a reputation for high-quality products.

Gregoire recounted that Tang remarked how Starbucks has influenced business culture in China, since meetings once conducted in a formal setting can now be held in a cafe. He also told Gregoire that he has five computers at home, all of them running Microsoft’s Windows.

“In Washington state every one of us really does need to understand we are the door to Japan and China,” Gregoire said. “That door needs to be wide open for cultural, economic and academic exchange.”

Delegates had a tougher time making progress on barriers to state agriculture and paper products. Washington Department of Agriculture Director Valoria Loveland said she had constructive and frank conversations with her Chinese counterparts.

Washington growers hope to sell fresh potatoes and other food products to China and urged agriculture officials to quicken the pace of their agricultural pest review so trade could begin, she said.

While meeting with Tang, Gregoire also raised the subject of Chinese tariffs on imported kraft linerboard, which have harmed state paper companies selling to China.

The tariffs were imposed in retaliation for U.S. trade barriers to Chinese furniture imports and may ultimately become an issue for the World Trade Organization, she said.

“If we can’t make this work country to country, we have to turn to the WTO as we did with Japan in the case of apples and we were successful there,” Gregoire said.

She said she was awed to be walking in footsteps of historic figures, meeting officials in the same hall in Beijing where U.S. President Richard Nixon first visited more than 30 years ago.

“For a little kid from Auburn, it’s pretty exciting,” she said.

China is Washington’s third-largest trading partner, receiving $4.2 billion worth of Washington exports last year. Washington imported products worth $16 billion from China in the same period. Washington has two trade offices in China — in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Gregoire and other members of the group were to tour the Great Wall today before heading to Shanghai tomorrow.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com