PANAMA CITY – Panama is facing pressure from an unnamed “great power” to curb its burgeoning relationship with China, Beijing’s envoy to the Central American nation said Tuesday.
“I feel that there are (pressures), but both China and Panama are sovereign, independent countries. We are mature nations, capable of making our own diplomatic decisions,” Wei Qiang told reporters in Panama City.
Though the ambassador did not explicitly attribute those pressures to the United States, he did refer to “denigrating and baseless” comments made about China by a foreign senior official during a recent visit to Panama.
“One turns on the television and important gentlemen from some great world power appear,” Wei said. “I don’t understand how, being such a powerful country, they set themselves to talking against bilateral relations between two independent, sovereign countries.”
Chinese-Panamanian relations are not about “harming third parties,” the ambassador said.
Last month, during a visit for talks with new Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo, the head of Western Hemisphere Affairs on the US National Security Council said in a television interview that Chinese investments in the Central American country were more about appearance than reality.
Beijing is only interested in exploiting Panama’s strategic location, Mauricio Claver-Carone told TVN Noticias.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conveyed a similar message during an October 2018 visit, urging Panama to be wary of China’s intentions.
Washington was not happy to see Panama establish diplomatic relations with China in 2017, though the Asian giant had long had an important economic stake in the Central American nation.
China was the leading supplier to the Colon Free Zone and the No. 3 user of the Panama Canal, after the US and Japan.
But following the exchange of ambassadors, Chinese firms have won multimillion-dollar contracts for construction projects such as a cruise-ship terminal and a fourth bridge over the interoceanic waterway that handles 6 percent of global trade.
The previous Panamanian administration began negotiations with China on a free trade accord.
Cortizo, who took office in July, has yet to set a date for renewing those talks, but Wei denied that bilateral relations have cooled under the new president.
“We are working normally to consider the next steps to be taken” regarding the prospective trade pact, the Chinese ambassador said.