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Florida university provost sees Miami as nexus to China

By AMY HE in New York | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2016-10-21 13:27

For Peng Lu, Miami functions for Latin America the way Singapore or Hong Kong does for Southeast Asia. The city acts as a de facto hub for Latin American countries doing business in the US and also gives it the opportunity to engage with other countries, most prominently of which in recent years has been China.

As China's interest in Latin America grows, Miami is becoming a more important nexus point for the convergence of Chinese investors and their Miami counterparts, said Lu, who is associate provost for international programs at Florida International University (FIU).

"Miami's influence in some Latin American countries and the Caribbean's is similar to the [role] that Singapore plays in Southeast Asia. It's very international and multinational companies put their headquarters there just like they would in Singapore" if they operated in Southeast Asia, he said.

What contributes to Singapore's popularity in the region is that its legal system "is very sound," which is a comparable quality found in Miami, Lu said. "Miami falls within US legal jurisdiction because it's part of the country and many Chinese have a lot of faith in that," he said.

Part of Lu's job as associate provost is to attract investors in China who might be interested in doing business with Latin American countries by giving them the educational background necessary. During his time at the university, the largest state university in south Florida, Lu oversaw the creation of the FIU Tianjin Center and more recently helped develop the school's Spanish program at Qingdao University.

The Tianjin center is an FIU campus in Tianjin that allows students in the hospitality major to receive dual degrees from FIU and the Tianjin University of Commerce. Courses are taught in English and the first class of students graduated in 2008, with all of them offered employment by local and international hospitality companies, according to the school's website.

Lu, who trained as an oceanographer before joining FIU in 2002, sees further growth opportunities in the Miami-Qingdao connection, with the two cities having a sister relationship. There are talks to develop a Sino-Latino forum on business with Qingdao University, which would bring together experts and business leaders from China and Latin America to discuss business issues of the China-Latin America relationship.

Trade between China and Latin America increased 24-fold between 2000 and 2013, according to figures from the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, and China is an increasingly dominant player in Latin America as a top trade partner of the region. China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects in the region and the country has become the No 1 export destination for several Latin American countries like Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela.

FIU has about 270 students majoring in Spanish in its Qingdao program, and the school plans to create a business major in Qingdao as well, which will specialize in trade ties between China and Latin American countries, Lu said.

"The two universities help the two cities for their business[ventures] in Latin America because Miami is the gateway to Latin America and China wants to do business with Latin America. They have a great interest in trade: trade between China and Latin America increased double digits each year. You don't see this in other areas of the world," he said.

"China really needs talented professionals who study Latin America in order to increase the direct trade between Latin America and China. Because Miami is a special location and has influence in Latin America, the Miami-based FIU is the best university to train them for this purpose."

Compared to some Latin American countries that have recently been embroiled in headline-making scandals and unrest, Miami, is seen as politically and economically stable by Chinese investors, Lu said. Miami has seen Chinese investment grow over the last few years, with much of Chinese capital going into the city's real estate and development opportunities. Overall, China's investment in Florida remains low compared to that in other US states. Florida attracted $1.1 billion in investment from China between 2000 and 2015, according to figures from the Rhodium Group.

"Engagement between the two regions has historically been low, due to cultural, geographic, and language reasons. But now the Chinese government realizes the importance of doing trade with Latin America, and wants to increase direct trade with the region," Lu said.

"Each needs the other, but they're still relatively unfamiliar with each other. They have to do business with each other through third parties, which reduces profit and trade efficiency," and gives an opportunity for an institution like FIU to step in and facilitate further ties, he said.

"Since our universities, FIU and Qingdao University, have such a close relationship — especially the majors in Spanish and possibly international business — we can help bridge the two cities for business," Lu said.

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