Chinese business delegation courts Taiwan ally Panama

BEIJING (Reuters) - A large Chinese business delegation has arrived in the Central American country of Panama, a diplomatic ally of self-ruled Taiwan, and is keen to invest in energy and port projects, state news agency Xinhua said on Friday.

Panama is one of just 22 countries to maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. China claims Taiwan as a wayward province and says it has no right to diplomatic relations with anyone.

The 35 Chinese entrepreneurs, lead by Zhang Wei, vice president of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, arrived in Panama this week, Xinhua said.

The delegates mainly come from the telecommunications, banking and construction sectors and “expressed a particular interest in investing in the energy and port sectors”, it added.

“During a meeting with the Chinese business delegation, Nestor Gonzales, Panama’s vice minister of foreign trade, said that his government is seeking to get closer to China,” it said.

China views Panama as a potential base for manufacturing plants, said Wang Weihua, permanent representative of China’s Office of Commercial Development in Panama, Beijing’s de facto embassy there.

“Panama is already acting as a bridge, a window to transit Chinese merchandise to Latin America,” he told Xinhua. “I think that, given Panama’s logistical development, this role will increase, and will be enjoyed by more Chinese companies.”

Asked about the mission, Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Eleanor Wang said China sought business opportunities around the world.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has continued to monitor China’s potential investments in Panama,” Wang said, adding that Taiwan encouraged its firms to invest in diplomatic allies.

In June, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited Panama for the formal opening of the expanded Panama Canal, her first overseas trip since winning a January election, and sought to consolidate ties with Panama.

China is deeply suspicious of Tsai, who it suspects of wanting to push the island’s formal independence, and has severed a regular communications mechanism established under Taiwan’s previous government.

Panama is one of Taiwan’s oldest diplomatic allies, but diplomats in Beijing have told Reuters they believe Panama is the most likely Central American nation to ditch Taiwan next.

Costa Rica recognized Beijing in 2007, and a U.S. State Department cable released by Wikileaks indicates that Panama sought to recognize Beijing in 2009, but was rebuffed.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Faith Hung in Taipei; Editing by Clarence Fernandez