PANAMA CITY: China’s expansion in Latin America of its Belt and Road initiative to build ports and other trade-related facilities is stirring alarm in Washington over Beijing’s ambitions in a region that American leaders since the 19th century have seen as off-limits to other powers.China is hardly a newcomer to the region, but now it’s focusing on countries in Central America such as Panama. It’s a country of just 4 million people but its canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans makes it one of the world’s busiest trade arteries and strategically important both to Washington and Beijing.As American officials express alarm at Beijing’s ambitions in the US-dominated Western Hemisphere, China has launched a charm offensive, wooing Panamanian politicians, professionals and journalists.The Chinese ambassador, a Spanish-speaking Latin-American veteran, has been talking up the benefits of Belt and Road on TV and Twitter. Beijing has flown professionals and journalists on junkets to China. It seems to be paying off.“We see a big opportunity to connect Asia and America to Panama,” Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said during a visit to Hong Kong this week.He is due to attend a “Belt and Road” forum in Beijing with other foreign leaders this month, according to the Chinese government.Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign initiative, Belt and Road is building railways, ports, power plants and other projects in dozens of countries around the globe. But the US, Japan, Russia, India and other governments fret that Beijing is gaining economic and strategic influence at their expense.
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