China/Panama. A New Ally On The Maritime Silk Road.

Panama breaks off from Taiwan and ties up with China Beijing. Taipei loses an important ally in Central America, the third after the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.

In 1434, the Emperor of the Ming dynasty ordered  Admiral Zheng He’s voyages to be stopped. The Admiral’s fleet of ships numbered in the hundreds. The Maritime Silk Road, at that time, was for Great China a solid reality that stretched from Vietnam to the Arabian Peninsula, and Chinese ships dominated the Indian Ocean. After 1434 China was just a terrestrial empire, while small European countries – Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, England – were preparing to discover America and colonize the entire world travelling by sea.
When in 1492 Christopher  Colombus saw land from his little caravel, he believed he had reached just East Asia. He could not imagine that, through that route, he would have to cross the new American continent and then the entire Pacific Ocean before arriving at the shores of China, a country that had been visited and narrated extensively by Marco Polo.
In 1522 Magellan’s expedition accomplished the first trip around the world by sea in history. But to do so he first had to circumnavigate South America – in order to enter the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean – and then he had to circumnavigate Africa to get into the Atlantic Ocean from the Indian Ocean. The construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1871 and that of the Panama Canal in Central America in1914, reduced the time of navigation considerably. In 2012, a Chinese military ship which, not by chance, was called ‘Admiral Zheng He’, accomplished a solo sea trip around the world for the first time in history, passing through the Suez Canal on 27 May and through that of Panama on 9 July. So China returned symbolically to its ancient maritime vocation, and its military navy currently ranks among the biggest in the world, being second to that of the United States, which remains the dominant one of the seas with its eleven Super Aircraft Carriers.

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However, China’s global challenge does not seem to be focused on the military, but rather on the diplomatic and commercial fields where Beijing is evolving silently but steadily. Chinese companies are present in all corners of the world, and massive Chinese investments have been made in the public works of many countries of the world, especially  in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, Central and South America.

Panama recognises ‘only one China’

The 13 June 2017 is an important date that marks the umpteenth silent Chinese victory. Panama, a former Spanish Inizio modulocolony, a former symbol of the US commercial supremacy on the seas, becomes a key hub of the Maritime Silk Road. Some Chinese companies have recently contributed to the modernization of the Panama Canal.
Over 150,000 Chinese reside in Panama, where they work in banking, construction, technology and culture fields. And the China-Panama Trade Development Office, currently China’s highest representative office in the country, will soon be upgraded to a full Chinese embassy.  China transports over 38 million tons of goods with a turnover of billions of dollars.

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In June 2016, the container vessel COSCO Shipping Panama from China COSCO Shipping Corporation Limited, made history by being the first ship to sail down the expanded Panama Canal… almost a premonition. The strategic waterway is one of the world’s busiest maritime routes and China is its second-biggest user. Beyond commercial benefits China has also gained a diplomatic victory.
In an address to the nation announcing Panama’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, Panama President Juan Carlos Varela said: “I’m convinced that this is the correct path for our country… the Republic of Panama and the People’s Republic of China have established new diplomatic relations, according to the interests and will of their peoples”. A joint statement from China and Panama said: ‘The Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that only one China exists in the world, the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all China, and Taiwan forms an inalienable part of Chinese territory’. The move drew an angry reaction from Taiwan. The Foreign Minister of Taiwan, David Lee expressed his indignation and regret at the decision of the authorities of Panama to break diplomatic relations. “To safeguard our nation’s sovereignty and dignity, we’ve decided to terminate diplomatic ties with Panama immediately”, Lee said at a press conference during which he also expressed Taiwan’s ‘deep anger and regret’ toward Panama’s decision. Taiwan also “strongly protests and condemns Beijing for luring Panama to switch diplomatic ties, squeezing Taiwan’s space in the international community and hurting the Taiwanese people’s feelings”.
According to Jiang Shixue, director of the Latin American Research Center at the University of Shanghai, Panama’s switch might lead, in the near future, to a domino effect in the 20 countries (mostly located in the Caraibic region), which still recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

John Scravaglieri and Patricia Mendieta



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