Responding to El Salvador president-elect, China denies it meddles

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - China on Thursday rejected comments by Salvadoran President-elect Nayib Bukele, who accused the Asian power of not playing by the rules and intervening in other nations’ affairs.

Nayib Bukele arrives to a ceremony to receive the credential as president-elect after winning the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Bukele, a political outsider who was elected in February as the Central American nation’s next president, has questioned whether El Salvador should maintain diplomatic relations with China.

In August, El Salvador broke ties with Taiwan to establish relations with China, following the Dominican Republic and Panama. China later offered El Salvador about $150 million for social projects and 3,000 tons of rice to feed thousands of Salvadorans struck by a drought.

“China does not play by the rules; they do not respect the rules,” Bukele said on Wednesday at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “They develop projects that are not feasible, leaving countries with huge debt that cannot be paid back and use that as financial leverage.”

“They are not a democracy, but they intervene in your democracy,” Bukele added.

The Chinese embassy in El Salvador issued a statement on Thursday responding to Bukele’s comments, saying cooperation between China and El Salvador would not be a “debt trap but instead a sweet deal for both nations.”

“China never looks to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations, but always opens and develops diplomatic relations with all countries, just as is the case with El Salvador,” the statement said.

Bukele has been critical of the benefits that El Salvador received after establishing diplomatic relations with China.

U.S. National Security adviser John Bolton tweeted that he and Bukele reaffirmed strong friendship between their countries on Thursday. “We are eager to identify new opportunities for foreign investment, improve security, counter Chinese predatory practices, & increase support for Interim Venezuelan President Guaido,” Bolton said.

The White House warned in August that China was luring countries with incentives that “facilitate economic dependence and domination, not partnership.”

El Salvador’s relations with Washington suffered under the outgoing government of the left-wing Faribundi Marti National Liberation front (FMLN), the party of the country’s former guerrilla movement.

The current Salvadoran government of Salvador Sanchez Ceren has defended its decision to open relations with China and accuses Bukele of receiving orders from the United States to cut ties with the country.

Bukele will take office in June. “We are convinced that President-elect Nayib Bukele, with the wisdom and courage of a great young leader, will make the right decision,” said China’s embassy.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria, writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Cynthia Osterman