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Panama switches diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China

June 13, 2017

BEIJING (AP) — Panama switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China on Tuesday, dealing a major success to Beijing in its drive to isolate the self-governing island it claims as its own territory.

Taiwan warned that the move would further alienate the island of 23 million from the 1.37 billion Chinese living across the Taiwan Strait. In Panama, President Juan Carlos Varela announced the change, which entails breaking off formal relations with Taiwan, saying in a televised address that it represents the “correct path for our country.”

A joint statement released on Monday evening in Panama said Panama and China were recognizing each other and establishing ambassadorial-level relations the same day. “The Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that there is but one China in the world, that the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory,” the statement read.

In Taiwan, officials including President Tsai Ing-wen denounced the move as a betrayal and vowed to maintain the island’s sovereignty and international presence. “Oppression and threats are not going to help in cross-strait relations. It will on the contrary increase the discrepancy between the people” of Taiwan and China, Tsai said at a news conference.

“We will not compromise and yield under threat,” the president said. Panama had been among the largest economies to have maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The island now has just 20 formal diplomatic partners, 11 of which are in Latin America and the Caribbean. The island is also excluded from the United Nations and many other multinational bodies at China’s insistence.

At the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo signed a joint communique establishing diplomatic relations, followed by a champagne toast.

Wang said he was sure relations between the two countries would have a “bright future.” Saint Malo said she hoped the new relationship would lead to trade, investment and tourism opportunities, in particular “exporting more goods from Panama to China.”

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949 and Beijing has vowed to take control of the island by force if necessary. While the sides had maintained an undeclared diplomatic truce for much of the past decade, relations have deteriorated under Tsai, who took over Taiwan’s presidency more than a year ago but has declined to endorse China’s view that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation.

The past year has seen China ratcheting up the diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, barring its representatives from attending the World Health Organization’s annual conference and other international gatherings.

Beijing cut off contacts with Taiwanese government bodies a year ago, and in recent months has also sailed an aircraft carrier strike force aground the island in a display of its growing military power.

Panama may be the first of several Taiwanese diplomatic allies to switch to China as Beijing steps up pressure on Tsai to recognize its “one China” principle, said Tang Yonghong, director of the Taiwan Economic Research Center at Xiamen University in southeastern China.

“Many Latin American countries want to have stronger ties with China for their national interests,” Tang said. Although China refused to form such ties during the previous administration of China-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, it no longer has any such qualms, Tang said.

“Now this trend could continue for a while,” Tang said. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that in breaking ties, President Varela had ignored the friendship between their countries and the efforts that Taiwan had made to help Panama’s overall development. Panama had “submitted to the Beijing authorities for economic benefits” and “lied” to the government of Taiwan, the statement said.

Taiwan will immediately cut ties, cease all bilateral cooperation projects and pull its diplomatic staff and technical advisers out of the country, the ministry said, adding that it will not “engage in competition for money diplomacy with the Beijing authorities.”

“We express our strong protest and condemnation over the Beijing authorities luring Panama into breaking ties with us, oppressing our diplomatic space to maneuver and harming the feelings of the Taiwanese people,” the statement said.

Beijing and Taipei have long competed with each other to win diplomatic recognition, at times enticing small or poor countries to switch with the promise of millions of dollars for public works projects.

Varela had suggested the possibility of switching diplomatic recognition during his presidential campaign in 2014, for historic, economic and strategic reasons. “Both nations are betting on a more interconnected world,” Varela said in a possible allusion to Chinese economic involvement in the Panama Canal. He mentioned that it was a massive Chinese vessel that was the first to pass through the canal’s expanded locks when they opened in June 2016.

China is the second-biggest client of the Panama Canal and the leading provider of merchandise to a free-commerce zone in the Panamanian city of Colon, on the country’s Caribbean coast. The loss of Panama is intended to show Tsai that continued defiance of Beijing will harm Taiwan’s overall interests, said Zhang Baohui, director of Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

“Panama was one of the more significant countries that still maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan,” Zhang said. “By taking away Panama, it once again teaches Tsai’s government the lesson that if she doesn’t accept the ‘one China’ principle … there will be consequences.

Zamorano reported from Panama City. Associated Press journalists Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, and Gerry Shih in Beijing contributed to this report.


Panama’s Coral Reefs Ringed with Threats

Panama’s Coral Reefs Ringed with Threats

By Emilio Godoy

TABOGA, Panama, Oct 16 2014 (IPS) – Ferm?n G?mez, a 53-year-old Panamanian fisherman, pushes off in his boat, the “Tres Hermanas,” every morning at 06:00 hours to fish in the waters off Taboga island. Five hours later he returns to shore.

Skillfully he removes the heads and scales of his catch of sea bass, snapper, marlin and sawfish. He delivers the cleaned fish to restaurants and hotels, where he is paid four dollars a kilo, a good price for the local area.

“I use baited hooks, because trammel nets drag in everything. That’s why the fishing isn’t so good any more: the nets catch even the young fry,” said this father of three daughters, who spent years working on tuna-fishing vessels.

G?mez lives 200 meters from Taboga island’s only beach, in a town of 1,629 people where the brightly painted houses are roofed with galvanized iron sheets. Located 11.3 nautical miles (21 kilometers) from Panama City, the mainstay of the island is tourism, especially on weekends when dozens of visitors board the ferry that plies between the island and the capital twice a day.

G?mez, who comes from a long line of fishermen, tends to go out fishing at midnight, the best time to catch sea bass. On a good day he might take some 30 kilograms.

“The fishing here is good, but we are dependent on what people on the other islands leave for us,” said G?mez, tanned by the sun and salt water.

The island of Taboga, just 12 square kilometers in area, lies in the Gulf of Panama and is the gateway to the Las Perlas archipelago, one of the most important nodes of coral islands in this Central American country of 3.8 million people.

From the air, they appear as mounds emerging from the turquoise backdrop of the sea, surrounded by what look like dozens of steel sharks, the ships waiting their turn to pass through the Panama Canal.

The isthmus of Panama possesses 290 square kilometers of coral reefs, mostly located on the Atlantic Caribbean coast, which harbor some 70 species. Coral reefs in the Pacific ocean host some 25 different species.

What the fisherfolk do not know is that their future livelihood depends on the health of the coral reefs, which is threatened by rising sea temperatures, maritime traffic, pollution and illegal fishing.

In Coiba National Park, in western Panama, and in the Las Perlas islands, “the diversity of the coral and associated species has been sustained in recent years. We have not detected any bleaching, but a troublesome alga has appeared,” academic José Casas, of the state International Maritime University of Panama (UMIP), told IPS.

“It’s threatening the reef,” said the expert, who is taking part in a project for the study and monitoring of reef communities and key fisheries species in Coiba National Park and the marine-coastal Special Management Zone comprising the Las Perlas Archipelago. The study’s final report is due to be published in November.

Algal growth blocks sunlight and smothers the coral, which cannot survive. Experts have also detected the appearance of algae in Colombia and Mexico.

The project is being carried out by UMIP together with Fundaci?n Natura, Conservation International, the Autonomous University of Baja California, in Mexico, and the Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama (ARAP).

Researchers are monitoring the coral in Coiba and Las Perlas in Panama. They took measurements in March and August, and they will repeat their survey in November.

There are differences between the two study zones. Coiba is little disturbed by human activity; it is a designated natural heritage area and a protection plan is in place, although according to the experts it is not enforced. Moreover, Coiba Park is administered by the National Environmental Authority (ANAM).

A protection program for Las Perlas, to be managed by ARAP, is currently in the pipeline.

Reefs are essential for the development and feeding of large predators like sharks, whales, pelagic fish such as anchovy and herring, and sea turtles, the experts said.

In Panama’s coral reefs, ARAP has identified species of algae, mangroves, sponges, crustaceans, molluscs, conches, starfish, sea cucumber, sea urchin, as well as groupers, snappers, angelfish and butterflyfish.

Fishing generates some 15,000 jobs in Panama and annual production is 131,000 tones, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census.

An Environmental Agenda for Panama 2014-2019 (Agenda Ambiental Panam? 2014-2019), published by the National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON),

Fundaci?n MarViva, Fundaci?n Natura and the Panama Audubon Society, proposes the passage of a law for wetlands protection, emphasizing mangroves, mudflats, marshes, swamps, peat bogs, rivers, coral reefs and others.

On the Caribbean coast, coral reefs around the nine islands of the Bocas del Toro archipelago, 324 nautical miles (600 kilometers) west of Panama City, are experiencing bleaching caused by high water temperatures.

This was a finding of a study titled “Forecasting decadal changes in sea surface temperatures and coral bleaching within a Caribbean coral reef,” published in May by the U.S. journal Coral Reefs.

Angang Li and Matthew Reidenbach, of the U.S. University of Virginia, predict that by 2084 nearly all the coral reefs they studied will be vulnerable to bleaching-induced mortality.

They simulated water flow patterns and water surface heating scenarios for the present day and projections for 2020, 2050 and 2080. They concluded that reefs bathed by cooler waters will have the greatest chances of future survival.

Bocas del Toro adjoins the Isla Bastimentos National Park, one of 104 protected areas in Panama covering a total of 36,000 square kilometers, equivalent to 39 percent of the national territory.

“Local communities need education in resource management, sustainable use, fisheries zoning and fisherfolk organization,” Casas said.

The next phase of the corals project, financed with 48,000 dollars this year and requiring about 70,000 dollars for 2015, will involve quantifying the value of ecosystem services provided by coral reefs.

G?mez has no plans to change his trade, but he can see that his grandchildren will no longer follow the same occupation. “Fishing is going to be more complicated in future. They will have to think of other ways of earning a living,” he told IPS, gazing nostalgically out to sea.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).


Panama, a Country and a Canal with Development at Two Speeds

By Fabiola Ortiz

PANAMA CITY, Oct 3 2014 (IPS) – With the expansion of the canal, Panama hopes to see its share of global maritime trade rise threefold. And many Panamanians hope the mega-engineering project will reduce social inequalities in a country where development is moving ahead at two different speeds.

The expansion is happening one hundred years after the inauguration of the canal that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. At the heart of the project is a third set of locks, larger than the current two, which will accommodate ships with a maximum length of 400 meters, a maximum width of 52 meters and a draught of 15 meters.

Currently the 12,000 ships going through the canal every year have a maximum length of 294 meters, a maximum width of 32 meters and a draught of 12 meters, which means the canal handles only about five percent of global seaborne trade.

The construction work, which began in 2007 and is to be completed in December 2015, is 80 percent done, Ilya de Marotta, the engineer in charge of the expansion works in the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), the government agency responsible for the management of the canal, told IPS.

The aim of the expansion is to boost the canal’s share of global shipping traffic to 15 percent, Olmedo García, director of the University of Panama’s Canal Institute, explained in an interview with IPS.

The 5.2-billion-dollar project will mean the 79-km canal will be able to handle larger vessels capable of carrying nearly three times as many containers.

“The canal now contributes 1.1 billion dollars a year to the national budget. Gross revenues are 2.3 billion dollars, but operating the canal absorbs 1.2 billion,” the academic explained.

“As soon as we finish the expansion, we have to think of building a fourth set of locks, which would cost 12 billion dollars,” said García, because the canal “is and will be the country’s main economic and commercial activity.”

De Marotta said “the expansion was indispensable because the canal was reaching the maximum capacity of boats that could go through. The demand for bigger ships is a global tendency, for bulk carriers and liquefied natural gas carriers – a client we don’t have because they are bigger vessels.”

“This is a good business that we’ll be able to attract now,” she said. “The idea is to avoid falling behind in global trade; with the new locks a container ship could carry 12,000 to 14,000 containers,” the engineer said.

According to projections, the country’s canal revenue will have climbed to 2.5 billion dollars by 2019 and to six billion by 2025, García said.

“The big advantage is that we not only have the Panama Canal, but also the logistics centre; together they represent 40 percent of our GDP. We have the best logistics connectivity in Latin America, with ports on each ocean, railways and the free trade zone,” he said.

“We can create multimodal trade with the merchandise distribution ports,” he added.

Social development at another level

But Panama’s priorities must change in order for the promising economic prospects engendered by the expansion of the canal to translate into benefits for the poorest segments of the population.

Despite annual GDP growth of around seven percent, because of the high levels of inequality, 27.6 percent of the population is poor according to figures from Sept. 28, although García and other academic sources told IPS the poverty rate is actually nine percentage points higher.

In rural areas of this country of 3.8 million people poverty stands at 49.4 percent, compared to 12 percent in urban areas. Worst off are the country’s small indigenous minority, who suffer from a poverty rate of 70 to 90 percent.

And according to official figures from August, 38.6 percent of the economically active population is engaged in the informal sector of the economy.

Thousands of families lack piped water and services such as health care and transportation.

Alfredo Herazo, 29, lives in the capital but takes a bus every day to the city of Colón, where he works in a soldering workshop that he and his father set up. “I don’t like this life but I don’t have any other options,” he told IPS at the end of a long day of work, as he got ready for the 79-km commute back to Panama City.

Colón, the second largest city in Panama, is a port near the Caribbean Sea entrance to the canal and is surrounded by the area that was the Panama Canal Zone when it was under U.S. control.

The canal was fully handed over to Panama on Jan. 1, 2000, as stipulated by the “Torrijos- Carter” treaties signed by the two countries in 1977.

The 450-hectare Colón Free Trade Zone is the world’s second largest free trade area after Hong Kong, with 2,500 companies that import and re-export with a total annual business volume of 30 billion dollars – although business dipped in 2013 because of disputes with Colombia and Venezuela, its biggest clients.

The Colón Free Trade Zone receives 250,000 visitors a year from all over the world.

“Like any Panamanian, I would like to work on the canal or in the duty free zone, because of the salaries paid there. The canal is our pride and joy. If I get the chance, I would be a solderer there,” Herazo said.

The young man said “the problem with the canal, from the point of view of the ordinary citizen, is that we don’t see the profits, which aren’t distributed among the population.”

The neglect of the rundown historic buildings in Colón contrasts sharply with the modern free trade zone, illustrating the gap between the vibrant growth of the canal and the country’s financial and trade centers and the desperation of those included from the boom.

Cesar Santos, 32, has been living in Colón for seven years, making a living selling fruit and vegetables in the Municipal Market in the city centre. He sets up his stand early every morning across from the Municipal Park.

“With this I only have enough to live as a poor man. Life in Colón isn’t good,” he told IPS.

He lists the problems in the city, stressing the lack of sanitation and decent drainage systems. “When it rains, everything floods, the streets are impassable, the city is paralyzed. After a downpour, everything is flooded,” he said.

Besides the lack of urban infrastructure, what bothers him the most is the living conditions of most of the people living in the city.

“People here are really poor,” he said. “People live in condemned houses. Besides all the assaults and thefts, this is a city that has been forgotten by the governments; good thing we have the free trade zone, otherwise there would be even worse poverty,” Santos said, while three customers nodded their heads in agreement.

García, in Panama City, said “The financial centers have to transfer part of their wealth. There is a serious social fracture. The canal can’t just be a channel for trade, communication and world peace. Panamanians need the social debts to be repaid, and part of the wealth should be transferred to the people.”

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).


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