Tue, Apr 09, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Beijing’s construction binge gaining ground in the Americas

Mexico’s president has said that he is considering joining the Belt and Road Initiative, which would give China a foothold in a nation bordering the US

By Juan Zamorano, Kathia Martinez and Joe McDonald  /  AP, PANAMA CITY

China’s expansion in Latin America of its Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and other trade-related facilities is stirring alarm in Washington over Beijing’s ambitions in a region that American leaders since the 19th century have seen as off-limits to other powers.

China is hardly a newcomer to the region, but now it is focusing on countries in Central America such as Panama. It is a country of just 4 million people, but its canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans makes it one of the world’s busiest trade arteries and strategically important both to Washington and Beijing.

As American officials express alarm at Beijing’s ambitions in the US-dominated Western Hemisphere, China has launched a charm offensive, wooing Panamanian politicians, professionals and journalists.

The Chinese ambassador, a Spanish-speaking Latin American veteran, has been talking up the benefits of Belt and Road on TV and Twitter. Beijing has flown professionals and journalists on junkets to China. It seems to be paying off.

“We see a big opportunity to connect Asia and America to Panama,” Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said during a visit to Hong Kong last week.

He is due to attend a “Belt and Road” forum in Beijing with other foreign leaders this month, according to the Chinese government.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) signature foreign initiative, Belt and Road is building railways, ports, power plants and other projects in dozens of countries around the globe. However, the US, Japan, Russia, India and other governments fret that Beijing is gaining economic and strategic influence at their expense.

“A strong US reaction, whether it is obvious in public or not, is coming,” said Matt Ferchen, an expert on China-Latin America relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.

Panama’s leaders see China as a source of trade and investment, but want to avoid conflict with Washington.

Varela has said that Panama’s relationship with China “will not affect relations with our strategic partner.”

Belt and Road is building on multibillion-dollar deals for loans and investments in oil and mining in South America that Beijing made beginning in the 1990s.

Venezuela has received US$62 billion in Chinese loans. Brazil owes US$42 billion and Argentina US$18 billion. Ecuador has borrowed US$17 billion.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he is considering joining Belt and Road. That would give China a foothold in a country bordering the US.

In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago agreed in May last year to take part. In September, a state-owned Chinese company was awarded a contract to build a dry dock.

American officials say governments should be wary.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited in October and met with Varela, whose term runs through July.

Afterward, Pompeo told reporters that Panama “should keep its eyes wide open” concerning Chinese investments.

“We are all concerned about China and by the way that China is entering those countries,” Pompeo said at the G20 meeting of major economies in Argentina in December last year.

Such projects are not always driven by “good intentions,” he said.

In a coup for Beijing, Panama switched diplomatic recognition in June 2017 from Taiwan to China, the self-ruled island the communist mainland claims as its own territory. That cut Taiwan’s biggest political tie to Latin America.

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