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In Asia, Export Opportunity Knocks

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In January, President Obama announced the most ambitious plan in American history to double U.S. exports. He knew that U.S. companies are already making products the world wants to buy, and our challenge now is to connect them with a new global customer base.

I am the chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, so my job is to make that happen.

Sitting at a table halfway around the world in Indonesia, I see the enthusiasm for American ingenuity. At a meeting in Jakarta, blocks away from where the President once attended grammar school, eager businessmen and bankers tell me about their country's exploding infrastructure needs and their interest in buying American.

It is the same message I heard in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City days earlier. Businesses want what we're selling, not because of cheap labor--which we don't have--but because they know that American quality, innovation and service after sale are unmatched by our global competitors.

This was my second trip to Asia in the last month, and it brought confidence and clarity to my agency's mission to finance America's export boom. The message from foreign officials: Most U.S. companies are not bidding on global manufacturing opportunities, but ears and wallets are open as soon as they decide to start.

Ninety-five percent of the world's consumers live outside of our national borders, but only one percent of American businesses sell to them. We're in a global race with China, Japan and Korea to enter and corner key markets of fast-rising Asian economies. If we want to grow our economy, we need to go where the growth is. One billion people will join the global middle class in the coming decade. That's a billion worldwide consumers buying cars, traveling on planes, consuming electricity and purchasing better medical care. That's one billion new opportunities for American businesses.

In Beijing, I heard about the demand for American-made machinery; Mumbai seeks solar technology; Hanoi wants telecom equipment; Jakarta sees a geothermal future.

Indonesia has the largest economy in Southeast Asia, but American trade and investment activity here lags behind current levels with Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. Indonesia has a five-year plan to invest $150 billion to develop its infrastructure, but it's up to American companies to capitalize on the opportunities this presents.

Case in point: Take a stroll through Jakarta's thriving open-air markets, and you see that local produce is in short supply. More than two-thirds of Indonesia's fresh fruit is imported. The bananas, mangos and citrus fruits abundant on rural farms spoil before they can be successfully shipped to urban centers. More locomotives and better air traffic control systems--American specialties, both--are needed to power this country's agricultural growth.

The Unites States is the world's largest manufacturer, but Japan is currently Indonesia's largest trading partner. In five years, we should be.

Same goes for Vietnam, where Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told me that's precisely what he desires. After 15 years of steady growth, Vietnam is entering a new phase of economic activity, in which investments in aircraft, airports, seaports and roads can unlock a brighter future for the Vietnamese people. As more American exporters enter Southeast Asian markets to provide critical infrastructure, we will create thousands of new jobs here at home.

The Export-Import Bank is the national credit export agency chartered by Congress during the Great Depression to map out new trade routes to support American businesses. Ex-Im accomplished this 75 years ago by literally blazing trails, investing in critical trade corridors like the Burma Road and the Pan American Highway. The present-day mission of opening new pathways within the global financial system is no less daunting.

This has already been the busiest year in Ex-Im's history. In the first quarter of 2010, American export growth has risen 16.7 percent. The Bank has authorized $15.2 billion in loans and insurance already this fiscal year, more than we made in all of 2008.

To get a foothold in Southeast Asia, Ex-Im last week announced an agreement with the Vietnam Development Bank for $500 million to help speed approvals to build infrastructure. In Indonesia, we announced a $1 billion credit facility to help small- and medium-sized companies purchase U.S. exports.

As the Bank's chairman, I know firsthand the difficulties that American businesses face selling overseas. I began my career transforming the direct mail order company my mother started at our kitchen table, the Lillian Vernon Corporation, into a $250 million publicly traded international retail supplier. My current charge is to eliminate the financing, credit and political risks that hinder transactions from Jacksonville to Jakarta.

For years, our government stood idly by while foreign governments provided robust credit support to give their businesses a leg up. No more. The United States will never sacrifice our country's free enterprise spirit, but the days of standing on the sidelines while our competitors run up the score are over.

Effective immediately, our government is hanging a bright neon sign on Uncle Sam's front door letting Asian businesses and banks know that a new generation of American exporters is open for business.