Above: Antigua PM Baldwin Spencer and South Korea FM Kim Sung Hwan (UN Photos: Eskinder Debebe and JC McIlwaine)
By Alexander Britell
China has been extending its influence and investment in the Caribbean region over the last several years, highlighted by several billion dollars in loans to the region announced last month. Now it seems neighbour South Korea may be getting into the game as well.
The Caribbean and South Korea held their first high-level economic meeting in Seoul this week, discussing green projects and improved trade between the two areas, the first forum of its kind and one that comes just weeks after a similar event between China and CARICOM.
“It is clear that we have entered a new economic framework with China and South Korea, and so the traditional sources of finance from the North Atlantic are being supplanted by these new economic powerhouses,” said Dr Keith Nurse, director of the Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Policy at the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill campus in Barbados.
Among the Caribbean guests at the forum were Antigua Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, former Barbados Prime Minister Lloyd Sandiford and Guyanese Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett.
Spencer said the Caribbean was looking to attract South Korean investment, making a bid at what was called the High-Level Forum on Korea-Caribbean Partnership.
“The Caribbean and Antigua and Barbuda are open for business and we are prepared to be part of a Working Committee to establish a Free Trade Agreement between CARICOM and Korea,” he said in the event’s feature address.
According to Spencer, Antigua and the rest of the Caribbean Community will participate in the 2012 Yeosu International Exposition in Seoul, under a theme of “Living Oceans and Coasts: Diversity of Resources and Sustainable Activities.”
South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan said the forum would lay the foundation for strengthening the cooperative relations between Korea and the Caribbean region, especially on green projects, where the Caribbean has been something of a pioneer of late, from wind farms in Jamaica and Guadeloupe to a burgeoning geothermal sector in Dominica and Nevis (which has a wind farm of its own).
The forum came just weeks after the China-Caribbean Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum, the third such meeting between the two parties.
While China has been involved (and increasing its involvement) in the region for some time now, Nurse said he didn’t necessarily see Korea’s potential entry as a race between the two states.
“They are looking for new sources of raw material and new markets, and I don’t necessarily see it as a competition between the two countries,” he said. “I just see that they, in effect, are capitalizing on their massive economic and export capabilities, which have been evident for the last decade or more.”
But Korean investment in the Caribbean is not necessarily a new event — in fact, South Koreans (and Taiwanese) actually anticipated the Chinese in getting involved in the Caribbean in the 1980s after the establishment of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, according to University of Miami Professor June Teufel Dreyer, an expert in Asian politics and economics.
“The Koreans were great entrepreneurs, and they got involved in the Caribbean even before China started doing this great economic leap forward, so they were established there,” she said.
According to Dreyer, the CBI, which enabled goods made in the Caribbean to enter to the US duty free, led to a wave of Koreans and Taiwanese building Caribbean factories in the 1980s.
China and Korea are not alone in the Caribbean, of course. Taiwan also cooperates with several Caribbean nations, including St Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia, highlighted by agronomic projects on the two islands. .
China and Taiwan are jointly cooperating in another country, Haiti, where the two are contributing aid.