PANAMA’S BUSINESS CHIEFS HOPE FOR BIG RETURN FROM NEW TIES TO BEIJING

Worker arranges boxes at a shop in Chinatown in 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.

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