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Singapore-India Trade Mission

by Jun 18, 2024Magazine, Nonprofits, Professional Services

Photo Credit: Peshkova | iStock

While Alaska’s largest international trade partners are currently China, Korea, and Japan, there may be some new Asian players entering the market if Greg Wolf, president and CEO of the Alaska International Business Center (akIBC), has anything to say about it. This spring, he was busy putting together an international trade mission to India and Singapore; he believes it could create lasting relationships between Alaska and the two countries. Those relationships, in turn, hold the potential to open new markets for Alaska exports.

“We believe that—similar to the success that we’ve achieved with exports to China—India could be the next very large market,” he explains. “Essentially, India needs everything that China needs, and our state has a lot to offer. Our goal over the past fourteen years has been to learn about what their import needs are and how our exports can meet those needs.”

In contrast to India as the world’s most populous country (surpassing China’s 1.4 billion in 2023), Singapore is one of the smallest sovereign countries by area, squeezed onto an island barely larger than the Anchorage Bowl. Its wealth belies that size, however.

“Since becoming an independent country about the same time as Alaska became an American state, Singapore has grown from an economic backwater to one of the most successful and richest countries in the world,” Wolf adds. “And they’ve already made some forays into the Alaska market.”

Inroads into India

In 2010, akIBC (then known as World Trade Center Anchorage) led its first trade mission to India, accompanied by Alaska business executives and government officials. The trip was designed to enable leaders of the state and the country to get to know each other and to better understand India’s import needs while sharing information about Alaska’s exports.

India’s population growth since then leads Wolf to believe that trade with Alaska could follow the same trajectory as the state’s ties with China.

“We had great success in China; we started with nothing and created a still-growing relationship that has resulted in more than $1 billion in exports annually from Alaska,” Wolf says. “We think we could replicate that in exports to India if we can successfully develop a closer relationship and expanded commercial ties with that country.”

In 2022, India’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 7.2 percent; in the same year, the US GDP grew by 1.9 percent. This growing economy is at the root of Alaska’s opportunities with India. In 2023, Alaska’s exports to India amounted to $1 million, primarily seafood.

New opportunities may be found in infrastructure build-out, as numerous projects are underway in that country to improve and expand the national infrastructure. “Alaska companies involved in engineering, construction, and materials could play a part in the growth and modernization of India’s economy,” says Wolf.

India is also the second largest importer of coal in the world behind China, which is another need that Alaska could meet.

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“Even though a lot of countries are shifting away from coal to cleaner sources of fuel, coal is still a large percentage of India’s energy production, and it will be for a long time,” says Wolf. “As they work to make the transition to a cleaner source of fuel, I believe their fuel of choice will be liquified natural gas, creating a target market for our state if we develop and commercialize our natural gas.”

Outside of import/export opportunities, Wolf notes that, along with China, India is developing into one of the largest outbound tourism markets in the world. “This is a welcome and potentially very lucrative developing market for our tourism industry,” he says. “Walking around Anchorage in the summer, you see more and more Indian travelers—some directly from India and others that are Indian nationals or US citizens of Indian descent from the Lower 48 coming to Alaska.”

While many may not have considered India as the next big thing, Wolf is certain that he’s right about its market potential. “I’m convinced that India could be our next very large market,” he says. “I felt the same way twenty years ago with China, and at that time a lot of people were skeptical. Turns out, it’s nice to be right.”

Wolf points to numbers that validate his hunch. “China is now our number one trading partner and it has been since 2011,” he says. “I won’t say that we can replicate that growth, which happened so quickly—tenfold within ten years—but there is definitely potential for long-term growth in exports to India.”

Singapore Praises

While Singapore’s population is much smaller than India’s, with only 5.5 million people, its per capita income is one of the highest of any country. In 2022, the city-state’s GDP grew between 3.5 and 4 percent. In 2023, Alaska’s exports to Singapore totaled $3 million, consisting largely of transportation equipment and seafood products.

“Singapore is a very interesting market for Alaska. I’ve been there many times on business trips, and you can drive around the whole country in three hours. Those 5.5 million people are concentrated in a very small area,” says Wolf. “But they have accomplished an amazing growth story in a relatively short period of time—roughly fifty or sixty years.”

Singapore already has ties to the Alaska market. Millenium Hotels and Resorts, which operates The Lakefront on the shore of Lake Spenard in Anchorage, also has a presence in Singapore and around the world. Singapore Airlines Cargo is a large customer of the Ted Stevens International Airport, currently operating between fifteen and twenty-four flights per month, depending on the season.

The city-state is home to two sovereign wealth funds, including the Government Investment Corporation and government-owned Temasek, which together have approximately $1 trillion in assets under management.

“When we visit, we always visit Temasek to learn more about how it invests its sovereign wealth fund, which we compare and contrast to how Alaska invests the Permanent Fund,” says Wolf, noting that Temasek started as a holding company for former state-owned corporations like Singapore Telecom and Singapore Airlines. “Their strategic investments provide an interesting contrast to how we do business in Alaska, which we may want to use as a model.”

Bridge builders on the Brahmaputra River contribute to India’s rapid economic growth. Greg Wolf, pictured below in San Francisco with T.V. Nagrenda Prasad, India’s consul general, envisions the current $1 million in Alaska exports to India rising to match the $1 billion in exports to China.

Photo Credit: D. Talukdar | iStock

For example, Temasek brought the semiconductor industry to Singapore by putting up 25 percent of the money needed to attract companies that fabricate silicon wafers. After proposing this idea to companies around the world, Temasek got three equal partners and created TECH—named for partners Toshiba, the Singapore Economic Development Board, Canon, and Hewlett-Packard.

Due to its strategic location at the Strait of Malacca, Singapore has played a major role in petroleum distribution, storage, and refining in Southeast Asia and more recently decided to get involved in liquified natural gas (LNG). The city-state set up its own company, Pavilion Energy, and now provides LNG storage and distribution to nearby countries.

“Instead of waiting for someone else to do it, they do it themselves,” says Wolf of Singapore’s can-do attitude, which he compares to Alaskans’. “If we were ever able to develop an LNG project on the North Slope, Singapore would likely be a participant either as a customer or as a partner in the project.”

Wolf adds that private companies in Singapore could also potentially invest in Alaska projects, such as tourism or resource development, and some companies have already invested in the Arctic through a private equity fund in Anchorage.

“Sure, we’re known for our world-famous seafood and oil, but in terms of our other businesses, we need to go out and make the business case for Alaska.”

—Greg Wolf, President and CEO, Alaska International Business Center

Playing the Long Game

Photo Credit: Alaska International Business Center

Following the first trade mission in 2010 to India and Singapore, akIBC has continued to strengthen the relationship between Alaska and the two countries through two Alaska-India-Singapore business conferences in Anchorage, most recently in 2019. The akIBC has also welcomed Indian government officials to Alaska, most notably the consul general in San Francisco, who has visited twice.

“We’ve hosted luncheons, roundtables, and meetings with both government leaders and educational leaders,” says Wolf, who notes that, in addition to commercial ties, India is interested in expanding educational opportunities with the state’s universities.

The upcoming trip in December will first stop in Singapore before continuing on to India. The trip will follow two akIBC trade missions to China planned for September and November.

“I expect strong interest in the Singapore/India trip,” says Wolf, who typically takes about ten people, plus akIBC staff, on a trade mission, though he has taken as many as thirty over the years. The ten-day trip includes two travel days and eight days for business meetings—some of which are open to everyone and others that are industry-specific.

“If we’ve got a seafood seller, we’ll set them up with meetings with buyers,” says Wolf. “Same goes for energy companies, engineering, and construction companies.”

Paul Johnson, president and CEO of Highliner Consulting Group in Anchorage, says that he was able to successfully create both relationships and business deals through the 2010 trade mission to Singapore and India—even with other countries.

“Not only were we able to turn a meeting with India’s Minister of Coal into a successful project with a group looking to export coal from the Navajo Four Corners Mine, but we also picked up work in Greece as a result of the connections we made in India,” he says.

He adds that this time around, he is taking an even more proactive approach not only by cementing his company’s presence in that part of the world but by reaching out to clients beforehand to find other opportunities for South Asian investors in fields such as fisheries and energy deposits, especially in rural Alaska.

While short-term rewards may come from the trip, long-term goals are more likely as these relationships continue to grow.

“Unless someone already has a deal in process and goes on this trip to sign the deal, we don’t usually expect to receive immediate results. I wish life were that easy,” Wolf says with a laugh. “Generally speaking, these trade missions are designed to either create new relationships or strengthen existing ones. This may eventually lead to the initiation of a business deal or the expansion of one. We’re not really expecting to arrive today, sign tomorrow.”

He notes that, while many people around the world know of Alaska as a tourist destination, many have never considered it a place to do business or as an investment opportunity.

“Sure, we’re known for our world-famous seafood and oil, but in terms of our other businesses, we need to go out and make the business case for Alaska,” he says. “Besides being a beautiful place to take a vacation, we can do business with you—we can help fulfill those needs.”

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