President Xi’s Alaska visit: salmon, scenery and a chance to deepen Arctic ties

Chinese president Xi Jinping met with Alaska Gov. Bill Walker during a short visit to Anchorage on April 7, 2017. Xi stopped in Alaska on his way home from a summit with President Donald Trump in Florida. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Gov. Bill Walker hosted an unexpected guest on Friday — the President of China. Xi Jinping was headed back from a meeting with President Donald Trump in Florida.

It’s not unusual for foreign leaders to re-fuel in Anchorage, but this wasn’t just a pit stop. And experts say there are good reasons for China’s top leader to drop in.

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Shortly before 7:00 p.m. on Friday, Xi and his wife stepped off a 747 at Ted Stevens International Airport. President Xi Jinping’s visit was a secret to most — Governor Bill Walker only found out two weeks in advance. But the governor offered a hearty welcome, with two of his grandchildren waiting on the tarmac with bouquets.

After deplaning, Xi and the Chinese delegation headed South to Beluga Point to gander at the snow-capped mountains across Turnagain Arm. The Seward highway was closed for about 30 minutes to accommodate the visit — which came just a day after the same road was closed for 12 hours for a police manhunt and an unplanned avalanche.

Then Xi and his delegation returned to downtown Anchorage, strolling into a conference room on the bottom floor of the Hotel Captain Cook. Sounds of the Anchorage Rotary Club’s 100th Anniversary celebration emanated faintly from the ceiling as Walker and the president of China grinned, shook hands and sat down to talk.

Walker talked about the state’s seafood industry — of which China is a top importer –Native corporations and Alaska’s position as a major air cargo hub.

But the governor devoted the bulk of his public remarks to his favorite megaproject: a planned natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Nikiski.

“Through the development of an 800-mile pipeline and liquefied natural gas facility, Alaska can provide a stable source of gas supply to the Asia-Pacific region for more than a century,” Walker said.

President Xi’s public remarks were more focused on the views.

“In the eyes of ours and in the eyes of many of the Chinese people, Alaska is a land that brings a lot of mystery in our mind,” Xi said through an interpreter. “It is where the people would like to go. It’s like Shangri-La to us.”

The Chinese president then made a prediction: “The very fact that we have now been here, I believe, will serve as a good advertisement for your state.”

Xi said his visit would likely fuel a Chinese tourist boom in Alaska.

But while the press was present for all of Governor Walker’s remarks, the bulk of Xi’s statement happened behind closed doors — in polite whispers, Chinese security guards ushered reporters out of the room. Neither leader took any questions.

Before taking off around 11 p.m. Friday, Xi and his delegation dined with Walker and his staff on king salmon and crab bisque.

At a press conference the next morning, Walker described the meeting as “very special” — although the Chinese president may have been disappointed by the restaurant’s stationary nature.

“When we sat down to have dinner at the Captain Cook we were facing the mountains,” said Walker. “And he asked if the room would spin — [would] be turning around. And I said I hoped it wouldn’t be.”

Walker said the discussion covered everything from climate change to the natural gas line to training opportunities for Chinese winter Olympic athletes. The governor didn’t announce any new initiatives, but he said he felt the visit could lead to closer ties.

“If we had traveled to China, we could not have had a meeting like this; not be surrounded with this level of high level ministers at that meeting,” Walker said. “I’d have to say it was a little unprecedented.”

Experts say the Chinese president’s Anchorage excursion was probably more than just a chance to eat salmon with the governor.

“It makes a lot of sense for them to strengthen their relationship with Alaska,” Nils Andreasson said. He works with the Institute of the North, an Arctic research group in Anchorage.

Andreasson said China has a strong interest in Arctic issues, focusing heavily on research and diplomacy in this area. Andreasson said they’re especially interested in the prospect of Arctic shipping routes.

But, he added, there was probably another reason for the visit: “Because Anchorage is beautiful.”

Andreasson said China is keenly interested in expanding tourism opportunities here. So get ready, Alaska — Xi was probably dead serious when he said to expect a lot more Chinese tourists headed our way.

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Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.