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What's Pataki doing in China? Is it trade mission or political foray?

Gov. George Pataki landed in China Saturday in what aides are billing as his first major overseas trade mission. It is a trek that a dozen companies accompanying him hope will find them new business opportunities in the giant Asian marketplace.

But is it too little too late?

With the economy -- particularly upstate's -- being a major issue throughout his administration, this week's taxpayer-funded trip comes 11 years into Pataki's tenure, and long after many other governors from around the nation already knocked on China's doors to pitch their state's commerce. It also comes with Pataki now firmly entrenched as a lame duck, following his summertime announcement that he will not make a fourth term run next year.

The eight-day trip happens to come at a time when Pataki, who lacks foreign-policy credentials and experience, is ruminating over a possible White House bid in 2008. Just a few days ago, he was in Iowa, the starting gate for the 2008 presidential race.

Pataki and his fellow travelers will do the usual sorts of trade mission things: meet with government officials and business executives and attend dinners. But aides were also looking to have Pataki visit Tiananmen Square -- a side trip seemingly unrelated to a trade mission, and which -- depending on what Pataki might say at the site of the 1989 bloody protest -- might not sit well with Chinese officials.

Charles Gargano, the state's economic development czar and longtime Pataki political adviser, said any 2008 political benefit to the governor's China trip is "remote."

Gargano said the sole purpose of the trip is to try to help New York-based companies sell their services or products in the fast-growing Chinese market. "It's really a trade mission," he said.

But many companies never heard about the trip or the offer to join Pataki if they paid the $5,000 tab.

Holly Sinnott, executive director of World Trade Center Buffalo Niaga
ra, a group representing firms involved in international trade, said she thought the China trip was important. "I think it's unfortunate, though, that the Buffalo Niagara business community hasn't heard about it."

Sinnott said she knows of plenty of firms that would have jumped at the chance to have senior New York officials possibly open some doors for them in China. She said such trade missions, especially to a complex trading partner like China, are enormously helpful to small and medium-sized businesses.

"I never heard anything about it," she said of the trip.

"I wasn't invited, and I don't know anyone going," said Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

How successful the trip will be, at least from a trade mission standpoint, depends on how much advance work Pataki's aides did in setting up the right meetings, Rudnick said.

"It can't be a bad thing. It's just a question of how good a thing it is," he said.

Gargano said the state couldn't reach out to every business group, but focused on finding companies with products China wants, such as those in environmental and energy fields. Gargano's office did not provide a list of who is going with Pataki. It did provide a list of companies being represented -- a dozen, largely unknown group of firms involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to asbestos remediation.

Tara Mancini is the sole business executive from Western New York accompanying Pataki. Her fledgling Buffalo firm, Blue Sky Optimum Energy, produces bio-diesel products used as a fuel alternative for trucks or home furnaces. Mancini heard about the trip on the Internet. She signed up, in part, because she was told she'd get to meet the minister of the China energy department, which she'll need to navigate if she hopes to sell her product in China.

"It's definitely a benefit to have New York state going along on this trip," Mancini said.

But one China expert said Mancini shouldn't get her hopes up.

"If what they are doing is trying to increase sales of New York state products in China, that doesn't make a huge amount of sense," said Jan Katz, who teaches international business at Cornell University.

With a few limited exceptions, such as agricultural products, she said American manufacturers simply can't compete with Chinese companies for sales in China. And while having state officials along to give some access to Chinese government officials will prove helpful, Katz said such sessions are not needed to help New York firms make connections. Despite American perceptions that China's government must be wooed to do business there, she said American companies need to make direct contacts with what she called the "hypercapitalists" in China's private industry.

Besides Pataki, taxpayers are paying for 10 state officials, plus two members of the governor's security detail.

Asian trade missions may be new for Pataki, but they have been under way in other states for years. William Weld, for instance, who is running in the 2008 GOP governor's race in New York, visited China as part of an Asian trade mission when he was governor of Massachusetts -- back in 1991. A steady stream of governors have already been going to Japan and China over the past two years.

New York's exports to China totaled $1.8 billion in 2004, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. New York ranks fifth among states in exports to China. Among New York export destinations, China ranks sixth.

In his years, Pataki has not been shy about foreign travels. He's been to Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Israel, the Dominican Republican and Iraq.

His first foreign trip was in 1995 to Hungary and Italy. It's unclear what lasting economic value it produced; last year, New York exports to Hungary totaled $17 million -- 79th among destinations and behind even Iraq.

Though such trips can often become criticized as junkets, Pataki's advisers insist the point is to help New York firms -- not the governor's political future.

Why after 11 years in office and after he announced he won't run again?

"He is the governor and he thinks it's important for the future, whether he's here or not," Gargano said.


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