San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Chinese Visitors Tout New Diplomatic Ties

Amid the double handshakes and the clink of champagne glasses, Chinese and Costa Rican authorities promised to cooperate on trade, investment, immigration and academic affairs during China’s first diplomatic visit here this week.

Tuesday, China announced plans to open a trade office in Costa Rica; Wednesday, some 30 Chinese companies inaugurated the first China Trade Expo; and yesterday marked the inauguration of the Chinese Embassy and the signing of accords on political dialogue, visas and education.

The countries established diplomatic relations June 1 after Costa Rica ended a 63- year relationship with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province (TT, June 8).

“Not to recognize a country that has a fifth of the world’s population seems to me a stupidity,” President Oscar Arias conceded Wednesday at a press conference with members of the Chinese delegation. “We are correcting an error… Our decision was based on realism.”

Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno signed three accords yesterday morning with Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei and Chinese Ambassador to Costa Rica Wang Xiaoyuan.

In the first, the two ministries agreed to maintain “close political dialogue” by holding a meeting every two years. A second accord will allow government officials from each country to visit the other without a visa for 30 days. A third will promote academic cooperation between the Foreign Service Institutes that form part of each ministry.

An hour later, the new Chinese Embassy was inaugurated with a flourish. High-ranking officials from both countries stood in the Embassy’s well-groomed garden in Rohrmoser, in western San José, as the Chinese flag was raised to the tune of the Chinese national anthem. At a cocktail party afterward, Ministers He and Stagno chatted in English, champagne in hand, about Costa Rica’s must see volcanoes and rainforests.

Arias plans to visit China Oct. 24, on an invitation from Chinese President Hu Jintao, to discuss more accords. The two countries may begin negotiating a free-trade agreement at the beginning of next year, according to Arias. The Costa Rican Embassy in China is set to open next month after Costa Rican Ambassador Antonio Burgués arrives in China.

Some 169 countries now have diplomatic ties with China, while only 24 recognize Taiwan. In an effort to strengthen relations with Central America, one of Taiwan’s last remaining bastions of support, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian is visiting Honduras this week.

At press time, Chen was set to discuss energy and the environment at a summit yesterday outside the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa with Presidents from the rest of the region.

Because all other Central American countries still recognize Taiwan, China is hoping Costa Rica will “break the ice,” according to Maynard Ríos, professor of international relations at the National University (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José.

China’s Foreign Minister He acknowledged this, saying “Of course we hope other Central American countries that now do not have diplomatic ties with us will reevaluate their relationship with us.”

Costa Rica’s turnaround was largely an economic calculus, Ríos said, but the decision is also part political strategy.

“Today, the composition of the international system is very different” than during the Cold War era, Ríos said. “It’s a multipolar system, dominated by economic powers.”

One sphere of influence for China is the United Nations Security Council, where Costa Rica is seeking a seat for the third time. Although all states in the U.N. General Assembly vote for non-permanent members of the Security Council, China has particular influence given its active diplomacy and permanent seat on the Council.

Chinese Ambassador Wang told the daily La Nación in a July interview that China would support Costa Rica’s bid.

News of further cooperation came last week, when President Arias said China would provide $50 million to Costa Rican municipalities – though questions about the aid remain unanswered and Chinese authorities have kept mum on the subject (TT, Aug. 17).

China and Costa Rica engaged in their first official act of cooperation last week, said Costa Rican Immigration Director Mario Zamora.

The Chinese government bought $4,000 airline tickets for each of 72 illegal Chinese immigrants with links to the Chinese mafia to return home from Costa Rica.Without diplomatic ties to China, Zamora added, Costa Rica would have had to swallow this expense.

“A better relationship with Chinese authorities will translate into a better fight against the mafia and a better control” of illegal immigration, Zamora said.

Approximately 30,000 legal Chinese immigrants live in Costa Rica, along with about 10,000 illegal immigrants. That makes Chinese citizens the third largest group of immigrants in Costa Rica, after Nicaraguan and North American immigrants.

“I don’t foresee drastic or dramatic changes in the flow of immigrants,” the Immigration Director said. “What I foresee is a selective immigration, principally of trade people, businessmen, and tourists.”

Zamora announced new Immigration rules in the works so foreigners from countries with restricted visa status can enter Costa Rica freely for up to 30 days if they have a U.S. or European visa – which high-level Chinese businessmen are likely to have.

To enter the country under the old rules, all Chinese nationals had to get a Costa Rican visa – a tedious process that could take months since all paperwork had to be done through the Chinese Embassy in Mexico and then be signed off by the Costa Rican Immigration Director himself (TT, June 15).

Trade advocates said the visa restrictions made it hard for Chinese business owners to enter the country to look for opportunities or make investments (TT, June 8).

Now, Chinese immigrants will be able to seek services at the new embassy, located two blocks from President Arias’ house in Rohrmoser. This shifts the burden from the private Chinese Association in downtown San José, which for years acted as a default embassy, according to association secretary Mandy Sung.

“There was no Chinese Embassy here, so Chinese people had to look (to) us” for such services as translation and group activities, she said. “Now Taiwanese people may look for us.”


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