Panama, China sign accords on Xi visit after diplomatic ties start

By Elida Moreno PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama and China on Monday signed 19 cooperation agreements on trade, infrastructure, banking, tourism and other areas on Chinese President Xi Jinping's inaugural visit to the isthmus nation after the two countries opened diplomatic ties last year. Xi arrived on Sunday night in Panama City for a 24-hour visit at a time when China is extending its influence in Central America, to the mounting chagrin of the United States, which has long viewed the region as its backyard. After a private meeting, Xi and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela sealed the 19 accords, including one under which China will provide non-reimbursable aid to Panama to carry out various projects, though the amount was not disclosed. The accords included an extradition treaty and memoranda of understanding on commercial, tourist, educational matters. Varela thanked the Chinese leader for his visit, and recalled that when opening an import fair in China in November, Xi had told him China's economy was an ocean. "I want to complement those words by saying Panama connects two oceans, and his visit consolidates our country as China's commercial arm and gateway to Latin America," Varela said in a televised address. In June last year, Panama broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established ties with China instead. This year, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador did the same, and other countries in the region may soon follow suit. The diplomatic breaks sparked concern in Washington, which in August said that Beijing is offering economic incentives in order to dominate the countries. However, relations between the United States and Central America have been tested by the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump. Trump has threatened to cut aid to the region if Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador do not curtail the illegal immigration of their citizens to the United States. Taiwan has formal ties with 17 countries, many of them small nations in Central America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Beijing regards Taiwan as a rebel province. Panama, which is negotiating a free trade agreement with China, has played down the complaints of the United States, and says that its relationship with Washington is solid. (Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Sandra Maler)