Panama invites China and Taiwan leaders to canal ceremony

Move by Taipei's diplomatic ally brings frosty response from Beijing

BEIJING/TAIPEI • China reacted frostily yesterday after Taiwan ally Panama said it had invited leaders from both China and self-ruled Taiwan to attend the inauguration of the Panama Canal expansion in late June, in what would be an awkward diplomatic encounter.

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

Panama's Foreign Ministry said both China and Taiwan were invited because "this is the inauguration of the expanded canal", noting that "China, as an important user, needs to attend".

The strategic waterway is one of the world's busiest maritime routes, and China is its second-biggest user.

Asked whether Chinese President Xi Jinping would attend the ceremony and possibly meet Taiwan's president-elect, Ms Tsai Ing-wen, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei would not answer directly. Ms Tsai is set to assume office in May following a landslide election victory in January.

STILL ONLY "ONE CHINA"

What I want to point out is that China has always had the One China principle as a fundamental precondition for handling and developing relations with countries around the world.

'' CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN HONG LEI, reacting to news of Panama's invitation to Mr Xi to attend the opening

"What I want to point out is that China has always had the One China principle as a fundamental precondition for handling and developing relations with countries around the world," Mr Hong told a daily news briefing, without elaborating.

Beijing has repeatedly warned against any moves towards independence by Taiwan, following wins by Ms Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in presidential and parliamentary elections.

Ms Tsai has said she will maintain peace with China, and Chinese state-run media have also noted her pledges to maintain the "status quo" with China.

In Taipei, she met Panama's ambassador, Dr Alfredo Martiz, who extended the invitation on behalf of Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, DPP spokesman Ruan Chao-hsiung told reporters.

Mr Ruan said Ms Tsai had told Dr Martiz that even though the canal ceremony would take place only a month after her May 20 inauguration, she would give it "priority consideration".

Mr Ruan declined to comment when asked whether Ms Tsai might meet Mr Xi if he were also there.

An unofficial diplomatic truce between China and Taiwan ended earlier this month when China resumed ties with Taiwan's former African ally, Gambia.

The truce had been in place since the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan president in 2008, ushering in a series of landmark trade and business deals.

Mr Ma met Mr Xi in a breakthrough summit last year in Singapore.

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

Costa Rica recognised Beijing in 2007, and a US State Department cable released by WikiLeaks indicates that Panama sought to recognise Beijing in 2009 but was rebuffed.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'Panama invites China and Taiwan leaders to canal ceremony'. Print Edition | Subscribe