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PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama's business community on Tuesday cheered the Central American country's decision to establish full diplomatic ties with China and ditch Taiwan, hoping to deepen links with a key customer of the nation's shipping canal.
Although there was regret at the cost to Taiwan, an ally of various Central American nations, there was broad support for President Juan Carlos Varela's decision to throw his lot in with China, whose growing global ambitions contrast with U.S. President Donald Trump's isolationist rhetoric.
"I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision, given the long-term links we've had with Taiwan, but nonetheless, (China) is a global superpower, the world's No. 2 economy, the second biggest user of the canal - and so we think this is a positive development that will result in more business and investment in Panama," said Inocencio Galindo, president of Panama's Trade, Industry and Agriculture chamber.
The diplomatic U-turn comes as China attempts to position itself as a defender of free trade in the face of the "America First" policy of Trump, who was elected in November 2016.
Chinese officials also celebrated the news.
Wang Weihua, the permanent representative in the Office of China-Panama Trade Development and Beijing's top representative in the country, said various attempts had been made over the years without success to establish formal ties.
Late last year, more advanced talks began with Varela's team that concluded only this week, said Wang, who added he was involved in the discussions.
China is interested in Panama for its strategic location, and as a trade and logistics hub, he added.
"China has made a big bet on Latin America, where it has strategic investments, and Panama, which didn't have diplomatic relations, was losing out on those advantages," he said in an interview. "Now Panama will be able to enjoy what our country can offer it in various sectors."
Almost a fifth of the cargo crossing the isthmus last year went to or from China, which has been taking an increasing interest in the Panama Canal.
In March, the canal's administrator, Jorge Quijano, said Chinese state firms were considering developing land around the waterway, which was recently expanded.
A spokesman for the canal said Quijano would address the implications of the diplomatic change for commerce on Thursday.
Taiwanese economic aid has helped support Central America, a region in the United States' backyard that relies heavily on agriculture and struggles with law and order.
Its remaining allies were guarded about what the future held for their ties with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
Panama's foreign minister, Isabel de Saint Malo, said Varela had expressed an interest a decade ago in establishing ties with China. She hoped the move would lead to trade, investment and tourism opportunities, especially for "exporting more goods from Panama to China".
According to Panamanian statistics, total trade between Panama and China was worth $1.1 billion in 2016 - roughly 12 times the value of the nation's commerce with Taiwan. Chinese exports accounted for the vast majority of it.
Alvin Weeden, a former comptroller of Panama, said the decision to break ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing would boost business and should have been taken years ago, given Panama's reliance on global trade and Chinese shipping.
"Every day, Taiwan is more isolated," he said, adding he did not expect the move to hurt Panama's ties with the United States, the top canal customer. "This is a reality that's happening, a geopolitical reality."
Octavio Vallarino, a partner of Desarrollos Bahia, a local real estate firm, said he hoped direct flights would soon be established between the two countries, and that the commercial real estate market would be bolstered by arriving Chinese firms.
Sara Pardo, president of Panama's hotel association, said the accord could help make travel between the two countries easier. "This is definitely going to strengthen the economy," she said.
Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Dave Graham and Peter Cooney