Wed, Dec 05, 2018 - Page 1 News List

China, Panama sign cooperation deals

AFP, PANAMA CITY

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center left, and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, center right, wave flanked by their first ladies in front of the Chinese Cosco Shipping Rose container ship at the newly inaugurated Cocoli Locks in the Panama Canal on Monday.

Photo: AFP

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela on Monday signed a string of cooperation agreements as Beijing aims to extend its political and economic influence in Latin America.

Xi’s visit comes after Panama broke ties with Taiwan last year and switched allegiance to Beijing. Since Panama’s move, two other Central American countries — the Dominican Republic and El Salvador — have made the switch.

Xi arrived in Panama late on Sunday, fresh from striking a 90-day truce deal in the trade spat with US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Argentina.

Xi and Varela signed a score of infrastructure, tourism and development cooperation agreements as Panama became the first Latin American country to partner with Beijing’s giant multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

“Our bilateral relations have had a strong start after only a year and a half,” Xi said.

Varela said Xi’s visit — and the investment it brought — meant that Panama would become “the gateway of China to Latin America.”

The two countries are also negotiating a free-trade agreement.

Xi also met with business leaders and visited the Panama Canal’s new Cocoli Locks. China is the canal’s second-biggest user after the US.

In a column written for local newspaper Estrella de Panama, Xi said that he had “high expectations” for the visit, the first ever by a Chinese leader to the country.

Beijing hopes that Panama can be a logistics hub for the expansion of trade in Latin America and the Caribbean — an idea the local business community has fully embraced.

“Panama usually generates a lot of interest because of its strategic location in the region and because of the canal,” National Business Council president Severo Sousa told reporters.

These factors, along with Panama’s political stability, growing economy and deep financial network, are “very attractive” to China, Sousa added.

“What the Chinese want is very clear: They want to take advantage of the geographical position for their expansion and development in the region,” economist Francisco Bustamante said.

“A strong Chinese presence in Panama reaffirms to the world China’s rise in the global hierarchy at the expense of the United States,” said Carlos Guevara Mann, professor of international relations at Florida State University in Panama.

“Being caught in the rivalry between China and the United States would be extremely problematic for Panama,” because “it could lead to reprisals by Washington,” Mann added.

On a trip to Panama last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Varela should be wary of China’s growing influence there.

Washington, which has accused Beijing of using aid to drive a wedge between Taipei and its Western Hemisphere partners, in September recalled its envoy to Panama City.

Varela, who visited China last year, promptly asked the US to respect his country’s sovereignty.

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