A Panama Canal worker decks the Chinese container ship Cosco at the Panama Canal's Cocoli Locks (December 2018 by Arnulfo Franco)

China's construction binge spreads to Americas, rattles US

PANAMA CITY (AP) — 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 U.S.-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 U.S., Japan, Russia, India and other governments fret that Beijing is gaining economic and strategic influence at their expense.

"A strong U.S. reaction, whether it is obvious in public or not, is coming," said Matt Ferchen, an expert on China-Latin America relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.

Panama's leaders see China as a source of trade and investment but want to avoid conflict with Washington. Varela has said Panama's relationship with China "will not affect relations with our strategic partner."

Belt and Road is building on multibillion dollar deals for loans and investments in oil and mining in South America that Beijing made beginning in the 1990s.

Venezuela has received $62 billion in Chinese loans. Brazil owes $42 billion and Argentina $18 billion. Ecuador has borrowed $17 billion.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he is considering joining Belt and Road. That would give it a foothold in a country bordering the U.S.

In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago agreed last May to take part. In September, a state-owned Chinese company was awarded a contract to build a dry dock.

American officials say governments should be wary.

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