November 30, 2018 / 7:40 PM / 14 days ago

China's president fetes deepening ties with Panama ahead of visit

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping held up Panama as a “natural” partner for deeper ties, according to an article published on Friday ahead of a visit likely to unnerve traditional Panamanian ally United States.

FILE PHOTO - Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

Xi heaped compliments on Panama ahead of his arrival on Sunday in a column that he penned in local newspaper Estrella de Panama, saying the country enjoyed “world fame for the Panama Canal, geisha coffee, and tasty tropical fruits such as bananas.”

He said China and Panama were “natural partners” to cooperate on China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, a Chinese government strategy to build global infrastructure projects.

Last year, the two countries established diplomatic relations after Panama broke off ties with Taiwan, which China views as a wayward province with no right to bilateral relations. The Dominican Republic and El Salvador followed suit in cutting out Taiwan in favour of China.

“In just a year and a half, bilateral ties have gained strength with extraordinary cooperation,” Xi wrote.

“The entire international community has listened to the declaration of Panama to adhere to the one-China policy and seen the will of our peoples to support the development of bilateral relations in unison.”

Washington has expressed rising concern over the growing influence of China, which has turned Central America into a proxy battleground for influence between superpowers for the first time since the Cold War.

Panama has insisted its relationship with Washington is still solid.

“We believe that the development of an agenda between Panama and China should not affect in any way our relationship with the United States, with which we have had a very strong common agenda for more than a hundred years,” said Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo on Thursday.

Xi said that China had become the second biggest user of the Panama Canal, behind the United States. Panama and China opened free trade talks in July that could turn the Central American country into a hub for Chinese goods across Latin America.

Chinese companies have won multimillion dollar tenders to build a bridge over the Panama Canal and a cruise ship terminal.

Reporting by Elida Moreno; Writing by Michael O'Boyle, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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