It's almost unimaginable today that a major port would not offer direct shipping service to the fastest-growing part of the world.
But that was exactly the situation at the port of Baltimore until last week, when the government-owned China Ocean Shipping Co. (Cosco) announced plans to begin service to the Far East.
While several shipping lines provided direct service from the Far East to Baltimore, none offered it in the reverse direction.
For shippers and exporters, that was a crucial missing piece in the port's operation, one that hampered export business and Baltimore's overall efforts to compete. Other East Coast ports have long offered at least one regular shipping service to the Far East.
Consider the economic implications.
China is undergoing an economic explosion as its huge labor force buys, builds and consumes ferociously. After two consecutive years of 13 percent economic growth -- compared to 3 percent in the United States -- it is far and away the world's fastest-growing economy. Likewise, Southeast Asia's economy is booming, with 7 percent annual growth.
In the past year, businesses throughout the world signed $100 billion worth of contracts to build new industries in China or sell new products there.
But few of those goods are being shipped through the port of Baltimore. Cargo from here to the Far East must be loaded onto barges and transported to the ports of either New York or Norfolk, Va. Understandably, most shippers simply bypass Baltimore altogether.
And that means a loss of valuable man-hours for dockworkers who unload the ships, bay pilots who guide the huge vessels to the terminals and other businesses, such as freight forwarders.
Maryland port officials first learned of Cosco's desire to add a mid-Atlantic port to its Far East service during a marketing trip to Beijing in April.
"Cosco is one of the lines you make regular calls on, and we gave them a presentation about advantages of the port," said Morgan C. Bailey III, director of marketing for the Maryland Port Administration, the state agency that operates five public terminals.
In late summer, port officials discovered that a delegation from Cosco was coming to visit East Coast ports. Baltimore, however, was not among them. "It wasn't even in the running," said Mr. Bailey.
Determined to have a fair shot, the MPA quickly put together a presentation about the modern, 230-acre Seagirt Marine Terminal container facility and dispatched it to the Chinese delegation at its hotel in New Jersey near Cosco's U.S. headquarters.
Still, weeks went by with no meeting with Cosco, and no scheduled visit to Baltimore.
Aware that a decision was imminent, three top officials -- Mr. Bailey, MPA Executive Director Adrian G. Teel and Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer -- headed to Beijing in November on a previously scheduled trip. After waiting two days to talk with a top Cosco official, they made their pitch for Seagirt over dinner.
A week before Christmas, Cosco quietly notified port officials that it will begin calling at Seagirt three times a month, starting mid-February, with container service to the Far East by way of the Suez Canal.
But the Chinese still haven't visited Seagirt.