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Thu, Nov 25, 1999 - Page 2 News List

Panama foreign minister visits

FOREIGN RELATIONS In the tug-of-war between China and Taiwan over Central American allies, Panama seems firmly in Taiwan's camp; but worries remain over Chinese influence on the Panama canal

By Catherine Sung  /  STAFF REPORTER

Panama's foreign minister Jose Miguel Aleman arrives in Taiwan today for a six-day visit.

His visit comes in the midst of Taiwan's cabinet reshuffle, where foreign minister designate Chen Chien-jen (程建?H) is scheduled to formally take over for Jason Hu (-J志強), the outgoing foreign minister and KMT campaign manager, next Tuesday.

Chen, who is fluent in Spanish, is to meet with Aleman during his stay here.

Aleman's trip follows Hu's visit to Panama last month, where he said high-level Panamanian officials assured him that ties with Taiwan remain firm.

A series of visits by Panamanian officials to China in recent months have fueled speculation that Panama is considering switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

China had previously stated that it planned to filch two of Taiwan's diplomatic allies in the Central America region before Oct. 1 this year -- the 50th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China.

With almost half of its 29 formal allies in Central America and the Caribbean, the region is an important diplomatic foothold for Taiwan.

For years, it has been the arena for a continual diplomatic tug-of-war between Taiwan and China.

Panama seems to have tipped the diplomatic balance by inviting Taiwan's ambassador to Panama, Lan Chih-ming (藍智民), to the handover of the Panama Canal next month while leaving China's unofficial trade representative in Panama in the cold.

Leaders from member countries of the Organization of American States, along with delegations from Japan, France, Egypt and Spain, will also attend.

However, Taiwan is concerned that China will gain preponderant influence over Panama through the chairman of Hutchison Whampoa, Li Ka-shing (李1顫?.

Li's Hong Kong-based conglomerate will take control of the waterway, paying the Panamanian government US$22.2 million per year for the next 20 years.

Taiwan and the US have become increasingly concerned that China could gain control of the strategically important canal, as Li is known to maintain close ties with Beijing leaders.

However, Taiwan too has commercial weight in Panama, with Taiwan's Evergreen Group having strong business interests operating warehouses and ports on the canal.

The group recently invested US$100 million in a harbor construction project and, along with a nearly completed housing project, is also planning to venture into the restaurant business there.

Chang Yung-fa (張榮發), the company's founder, has close ties with Panama president Mireya Moscoso and has been invited to attend the canal handover on Dec. 14, reported the Central News Agency yesterday.

Aleman will meet with Chang, along with president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), economic minister Wang Chih-kang (?y揮??/CHINESE>) and Hu during his stay in Taiwan.

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