Lt. Gov. Bill Halter said Monday that he signed an agreement with one of China's most populous provinces that could help Arkansas sell products to a country expected to become the world's largest consumer market.
Halter returned Saturday from a weeklong trip to China with a group of lieutenant governors from several other U.S. states. On Monday, he said he signed a letter of intent on Arkansas' behalf with top officials of Henan province, located south of Beijing and west of Shanghai. He said the letter commits Arkansas and Henna to work to improve relations, though it contains no formal plans.
Asked whether he expected the letter of intent to be mostly symbolic or result in real economic gains for Arkansas, Halter declined to speculate.
"You can never say how these relationships are going to pan out," he said.
Henan is home to nearly 94 million of China's 1.3 billion residents, making it the country's third most populous province. It has 2 1/2 times California's population — and about 32 times Arkansas' population.
Halter said Henan, like Arkansas, has major agriculture and manufacturing components to its economy and is a distribution hub because of its central location.
"This (agreement) has the potential to provide Arkansas with greater access to the China market," Halter said.
Arkansas-based companies including Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods are already active trading partners with China, Halter said. State exports to China amounted to about $320 million last year, he said.
China's population also offers great potential to livestock producers in Arkansas, Halter said.
He acknowledged that China doesn't currently allow imports of poultry products from Arkansas under a ban that stems from concerns about avian flu following a spike in the disease a few years ago. But he said Tyson sells poultry in China that was produced in other U.S. states.
Arkansas is the largest rice-producing state in the U.S., but sells no rice to China. Although China is the world's largest consumer of rice, it also is its largest producer.
"The rice issue is more complicated (than the poultry ban) and will take a longer time to resolve ... because of the important role of rice in the Chinese diet," he said when asked about the commodity.
He said the formal agreement was "the beginning of a process to create concrete relations."
The next step, he said, would be visits by an Arkansas delegation to Henan, and a visit by Henan representatives to Arkansas.
Halter said Henan also has a sister-state relationship with Kansas.