Malaysia targets Port of Miami for regional shipping hub
By Scott Blake
Malaysian trade officials have high hopes for Miami. They aspire to make the Magic City a stronger entry point for shipping Malaysian imports throughout the United States, Latin American and the Caribbean.
Since opening five years ago, the Malaysian Trade Center near Miami International Airport has been working toward that goal. However, progress has been hard fought due to the recession.
"We will intensify our promotion efforts by riding on [Miami's trading] platform to expand Malaysia's exports both in terms of markets and the range of products traded," says Jonathan Rao, director of the Malaysian Trade Center. "We want to join this bandwagon along with others who are already here."
Last year, however, Malaysian imports into Miami fell to a total value of $137 million. That was down from $157.9 million in 2009 and $211.4 million in 2008, according to US Customs and Border Patrol data.
Mr. Rao attributes the drop to the United States' economic slump, but business is looking better this year. In the first half of the year, goods coming into Miami from the Southeast Asian nation totaled more than $100 million, Mr. Rao says.
Most of the imports were electronic parts and rubber products, according to data from Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency.
Trade data also show that Florida, as a whole, is doing more business with Malaysia. The value of both imports and exports between Florida and Malaysia totaled $418.9 million last year, up more than 25% from 2009. Imports accounted for most of that total — about $298 million.
The plan, however, is to bring more than just Malaysia-made merchandise into Florida — Malaysian businesspeople want to share their knowledge in various fields.
"We'd like to export our expertise in the services sector," Mr. Rao says, "and that includes construction and the oil and gas industries."
He points to the $3 billion-plus resort and casino that Malaysian corporate giant Genting Group is proposing to build on downtown Miami's waterfront as a symbol of the potential for greater business links between South Florida and Malaysia.
Mr. Rao says his office would like to get involved in the Genting proposal to explore related trade opportunities. He sees the Genting plan as "testimony that the Malaysian business community is keen toward contributing in the economic development" of Florida.
Joe Smith, vice president of the Florida Foreign Trade Association, says a portion of Malaysian imports originates from US companies that ship parts overseas to be assembled, then returned to the US.
"A lot of American corporations have gone offshore," he adds.
Of the top 40 sources for imports into Miami last year, East Asia and Southeast Asia had nine countries on the list, including Malaysia, which ranked 39th.
China was No. 1, shipping $3.98 billion worth of goods into Miami, US Customs data show. Other East Asian or Southeast Asian countries in the top 40 were South Korea (No. 15); Japan (18); Singapore (21); Taiwan (23); Thailand (27); Indonesia (31); and Vietnam (37).
The Florida Foreign Trade Association, Mr. Smith says, is more concerned with tapping into merchants from overseas who want to import goods made in the US. With that goal in mind, the association recently helped arrange dozens of business meetings in South Florida between company representatives from both the US and Costa Rica.
Mr. Smith says foreign merchants are looking to buy US exports, and sometimes the only obstacle is just finding the right American companies to do business with them.
"We do inbound trade missions," he says. "Countries come to the US and we set up business meetings between them and [American] suppliers."
On the side of imports, Mr. Rao has been meeting with local chambers of commerce, government agencies and business organizations to open up trade lines between Malaysia and South Florida. He says trade agreements have improved access to American markets for foreign suppliers. Still, one of his goals is to build support for lowering duties on Malaysian imports to the US.
Malaysian business officials want to make Miami a main distribution center for their goods into the US, as well as points south.
Mr. Rao says Malaysia wants to take advantage of Miami's established trade relationships with Latin America and the Caribbean, mainly using Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami as launching pads.
If such trade unfolds as planned, Miami's economy will benefit, he says.
One challenge is getting Latin American and Caribbean markets to be more receptive to Malaysian products over those coming from trading giants such as China.
"China competes on price," Mr. Rao says. "We want to emphasize quality."
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