United States officials are worried about China’s expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative to Latin America.
The Belt and Road program is helping to pay for ports and trade-related infrastructure in Central and South American countries. That is just a little too close to the U.S. border, the officials think.
China is not new in Latin America, but now it is working with nations such as Panama, a country the United States invaded just as recently as 1989. Panama is home to the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. So it is very important strategically.
While U.S. officials express concern about China’s moves into Latin America, Chinese officials are working to make friends with Panamanian politicians and media.
The Chinese ambassador to Panama is a Spanish-speaking expert on Latin America. On television and messages published on Twitter, he has noted the economic benefits of the project.
“We see a big opportunity to connect Asia and America to Panama,” noted Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela. He spoke during a visit to Hong Kong this week. China’s government said he planned to attend a Belt and Road meeting in Beijing with other foreign leaders.
Belt and Road is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s major program for foreign countries. The Chinese plan to build railways, ports, power plants and other projects in more than 20 countries around the world. The United States, Japan, Russia, India and other governments worry that China is gaining too much economic and strategic power.
“A strong U.S. reaction is coming,” said Matt Ferchen. He is an expert on China-Latin America relations and works at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.
Panama’s leaders see China as a partner for trade and investment, but they want to avoid conflict with the U.S. government. Varela has said Panama’s relationship with China “will not affect relations with our strategic partner.”
For the Belt and Road Initiative, China loans money to countries to pay for development projects. Currently, Venezuela owes $62 billion. Brazil owes $42 billion. Argentina and Ecuador each owe over $16 billion.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he is considering joining Belt and Road.
U.S. officials say governments should be careful. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Panama in October and met with Varela. He said Panama “should keep its eyes wide open” about Chinese investments.
“We are all concerned about China and by the way that China is entering those countries,” Pompeo said in December. He was speaking at a meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in Argentina.
So far, the Panamanian government has been paying for projects awarded to Chinese businesses. Panama has yet to receive Chinese loans.
President Donald Trump’s “America first” policies are not helping the United States in Latin America, said businessman Roberto Eisenmann. “They are leaving a vacuum of leadership that obviously the Chinese are trying to fill,” said Eisenmann.
Trump has yet to name an ambassador to Panama.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
initiative – n. a plan or program that is intended to solve a problem
infrastructure – n. the basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function properly
strategic – adj. useful or important in achieving a plan or strategy
benefit - n. a good or helpful result or effect
opportunity – n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done
vacuum – n. a situation created when an important person or thing has gone and has not been replaced