- The Washington Times - Friday, November 23, 2018

Chinese President Xi Jinping will make his first official state visit to Panama next week in a bid to deepen ties between the two countries, despite growing U.S. criticism over Beijing’s efforts to increase its influence in Latin America.

Mr. Xi will visit his counterpart, Juan Carlos Varela, in Panama City Dec. 2-3, Panama confirmed. Officials have called it an “unprecedented visit” to sign cooperative agreements for commerce, technology and infrastructure projects.

The trip comes just after Mr. Xi is scheduled to meet with President Trump in Buenos Aires at the G-20 economic summit, which runs Nov. 30-Dec. 1. The leaders of the world’s two largest economies are expected to discuss diffusing the escalating trade war between Washington and Beijing.

On Friday, Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs Qin Gang said Mr. Xi’s trip to Panama would reaffirm Beijing’s engagement with Latin America, which has recently seen a series of diplomatic developments that have regional experts on edge.

In June 2017 Panama officially cut ties with U.S. ally Taiwan and established a formal alliance with Beijing, with the Dominican Republic and El Salvador following suit. The moves infuriated Washington so much that in September 2018, the U.S. recalled its top diplomats from the three countries.

Mr. Xi’s visit to Panama would be the first by a senior Chinese official since it shifted its diplomatic allegiance to Beijing and raised major questions about the future of the Panama Canal, which links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The canal is widely seen as critical to U.S. dominance of the Western Hemisphere.

In July, Panamanian and Chinese officials started free-trade talks that focused on turning the geographically strategic country into a hub to move Chinese goods across Latin America. Since then Washington has applied pressure on Panama City.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit last month to Panama that he had warned Mr. Varela about doing business with China, criticizing Chinese state-owned enterprises that engage in “predatory economic activity.”

Mr. Xi’s ambitious global infrastructure program, called the Belt and Road Initiative, has been viewed with increasing concern by Western China watchers as an effort to leverage infrastructure lending into strategic military footholds.

In Panama, Chinese companies are reportedly working on a range of infrastructure projects, including ports, with local officials having voiced support for the Belt and Road Initiative.

Vice President Mike Pence last week warned countries not to be seduced by the initiative, while at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation regional forum in Papua New Guinea.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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