Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam talks about education and his budget to the editorial board at the Times Free Press.

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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam talks about education and his budget to the editorial board at the Times Free Press.

Tennessee's biggest foreign direct investments in 2015

Twenty foreign firms either initiated new operations or significantly expanded existing ones in 2015:

' 1. Volkswagen (Germany) in Chattanooga, $600 million expansion adding 2,000 jobs

' 2. Bridgestone (Japan) in Nashville, $232.6 million expansion adding 607 jobs

' 3. Fresenius Medical Care (Germany) in Knoxville, $140 million investment with 665 jobs

' 4. SL Tennesseee (South Korea) in Clinton, Tenn., $80.5 million investment with 1,000 jobs

' 5. Yanfeng Automotive (China) in Chattanooga, $55 million supplier plant with 325 jobs

Source: Global Commerce, 2015 Tennessee Foreign Direct Investment

In Chattanooga, the French-based Plastic Omnium Auto Exteriors also announced a $65 million investment with 184 jobs last year

In contrast to his party's presumptive presidential nominee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday be believes trade with Asia is helping America, and especially Tennessee, where Japanese, Korean and Chinese companies have invested more than $20 billion and added nearly 50,000 jobs.

"In the countries where we have trade agreements, our exports — be they agricultural or manufacturing goods — tend to be 30 to 40 percent higher," Haslam told reporters Friday after returning from a 10-day business recruitment trip to Asia. "I also wouldn't want to see what Tennessee would look like if (Japanese-based) Nissan wouldn't have made its original investment in Tennessee (in 1983), which has been followed by so many other foreign suppliers."

Tennessee is now home to 184 Japanese businesses, ranking the Volunteer State as the No. 1 state for Japanese direct foreign investment in the Southeast and third among all U.S. states. A recent study by Middle Tennessee State University estimates that foreign direct investments announced last year from around the globe added more than 7,000 jobs in Tennessee, including more than 2,500 jobs in Chattanooga from Volkswagen and its suppliers from China and France.

Haslam is eager to grow both exports to and investments from Asia so he and Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd spent most of the past couple of weeks meeting with more than 250 business leaders in eight Asian cities.

The Tennessee governor said Asian business leaders are worried about how the results of the presidential campaign may hurt their trade with the United States.

"We got asked about the presidential race pretty frequently, and there is a high degree of concern in Asia about how the U.S. sees its role in the world going forth," Haslam said. "I would say there is a high degree of concern there because trade has been a heavy topic of discussion in both the Republican and the Democratic primaries."

Republican Donald Trump has repeatedly denounced trade deals and what he calls currency manipulation by China and Japan. Trump claims China is taking $300 billion a year out of the U.S. economy and other countries are also getting a better share of international trade deals.

"We have to take jobs away from other countries because other countries are taking our jobs," Trump said earlier this year. "There is practically not a country that does business with the United States that isn't making — let's call it a very big profit."

Haslam noted that Democrat Hillary Clinton also has taken a more protectionist approach to trade recently. Clinton, who originally voiced support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, has backed away from her earlier support amid a growing sentiment against free trade in the Democratic primaries.

Haslam said most Asian business leaders he met still see the U.S. as a strong market and any investments such firms make in Tennessee will be judged on the long-term business needs rather than any immediate political challenge.

"I was more encouraged than ever that people see the United States as the most stable and best place to invest anywhere in the world," he said. "We also took a lot of encouragement from the fact that many of those interested in investing in the U.S. saw Tennessee as a leading candidate for that investment."

Haslam said he expects foreign direct investment in Tennessee to grow even more in 2016.

Boyd said the protectionist sentiments voiced by Trump and other politicians in America "are definitely a concern in Asia." But Tennessee's top business recruiter said he doesn't expect that to block planned investments in the U.S. by businesses eager to grow and build their businesses in the world's biggest market.

Haslam said Tennessee's reputation is improving because so many Asian businesses have come to the Volunteer State and had success and because he is able to cite programs like the Tennessee Promise, designed to provide a better trained workforce for businesses.

"The best advertising you can get is having an existing customer tell others about you and we were able to take advantage of that in Asia with several of our existing businesses," he said, noting that representatives from both Hakoook Tire and SL Tennessee accompanied them in selling the advantages of Tennessee.

Boyd called the Asian trip "incredibly successful."

"You never know where the next Nissan is going to come from, but there were many businesses we met with that we felt like had those possibilities," he said. "We can't disclose any specific deals that are in negotiations right now, but we're hopeful that we will have some as a result of this trip."

Boyd said the Department of Economic and Community Development is setting up five offices around the globe, including a new office that opened in Korea this month. Other marketing offices for Tennessee have or soon will open in Japan, Italy, Germany and northern Europe.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree or at 423-757-6340.