PANAMA CITY – Chinese President Xi Jinping confirmed on Monday that Panama is a key ally in Beijing’s strategy to expand its footprint in Latin America and reiterated his desire to build an “open” world economy.
Xi, the first Chinese leader to visit the Central American country, said that “in just a year-and-a-half” after the establishment of diplomatic ties in June 2017 “bilateral relations have gotten off to a strong start.”
The aim of China’s strategic plan, known as “The New Silk Road” and incorporating dozens of other countries, is to create a network of infrastructure around the world whereby China can distribute its products and secure the raw materials its industry requires.
Because of its strategic location and connectivity, Panama can be “China’s commercial arm in – and gateway into – Latin America,” said Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela.
China, with which Panama is negotiating a free trade treaty, maintains an important presence in the Central American country. It is the second biggest user – after the US – of the Panama Canal, and the first provider in the Colon Free Trade Zone on Panama’s Caribbean coast, the hemisphere’s largest free trade area.
Chinese firms, in addition, recently have won multimillion dollar bids to build a kilometer-long (about 0.6 miles) bridge over the Panama Canal, a convention center and a cruise ship terminal.
The Panamanian leader said that China’s plan, which critics call imperialist, “promotes the common development of humanity,” in which “the interests and needs of many nations in the region and the world converge.”
“We back this initiative with the view of acknowledging the need for a more connected world, where our country – with its geographic position, its canal, its logistical and financial platform and the Colon Free Trade Zone – will play a first-rank role,” he added.
The two leaders held a private bilateral meeting, also attended by their foreign ministers and working teams, and afterwards they provided a joint statement to the media.
The agreements signed by Varela and Xi included pacts in tourism, training, languages, agriculture and visa flexibility and come after another 20 or so accords were signed in November 2017, when Varela made a state visit to Beijing.
Xi’s visit to Panama comes at a time when Beijing is seeking to expand its influence in Latin America, a region which historically has been under Washington’s umbrella.
After Panama, the Chinese leader will continue his regional tour by visiting the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.