Li Changua, the new Chinese ambassador to Costa Rica, assumes his new post at a time when the relationship between the two countries is both young and surging.
Since Costa Rica and China established diplomatic relations on June 1, 2007, cooperation between the two countries has advanced at hurricane-force speed – from construction of the gigantic National Stadium in San José’s La Sabana Park, a gift of the Chinese government, to the recent negotiations for a free-trade agreement.
Changhua – who replaced the first-ever Chinese ambassador to Costa Rica, Wang Xiaoyuan, in January – has extensive Latin American experience. Most recently he served as Chinese ambassador to Colombia. Earlier, he was China’s ambassador to Chile, and he also has served as diplomatic representative in Venezuela, Ecuador and Uruguay, and he studied for several years in Mexico.
The Tico Times met with Changhua at the Chinese Embassy in Rohrmoser, west of San José, to discuss his new role and the burgeoning relationship between the two countries.
TT: What are your thoughts regarding the growth of the relationship between China and Costa Rica?
LC: Since we established diplomatic relations on June 1, 2007, we have worked very hard to develop bilateral relations, and the two governments and the business sectors have worked very hard to achieve what we have thus far. Now we have almost completed a free trade agreement. We have concluded the negotiations and are waiting only on the signature of the agreement to finalize it. The agreement will improve the exchange (between the two countries) that already has been very fluid.
When our president, Hu Jintao, visited Costa Rica, the idea of a free-trade agreement was born. Because of that, we believe that the exchange and trade between people from both countries is a factor, a promoter, that will continue to develop the relationship.
We have made significant advances. One evident example is the construction of the National Stadium that has already made good progress, as about 60 percent of the project is complete. The creation of the stadium has been very beneficial for relations between the two countries. I am confident in predicting that the Chinese-Costa Rica relationship is going to broaden. We have the will, and I believe Costa Rica has the same will to continue to develop our relations.
You mentioned the National Stadium. Can you explain why China decided to give a stadium to Costa Rica?
Well, the project of the National Stadium is part of an international cooperation agreement between China and Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a passion for sports and particularly for soccer. The country deserves to have a stadium in good condition, which will develop the sport and serve as an artistic representation for the country. The stadium that we are constructing should be completed by the beginning of next year. It is going to be a symbol of and crystallize the friendship that exists between the two countries.… The friendship between Costa Rica and China has existed for many years. It has been more than 100 years since the Chinese arrived here to join in and live with the local communities. The Chinese support Costa Rica with their work, with their sweat, with their efforts to develop the country. For that reason, we believe the friendship between the two countries has a long tradition. The official relationship has been short, but our friendship has a long-standing tradition.
In October, Costa Rica inaugurated a “Chinatown” in San José. What do you think the relationship will look like in another two, five or 10 years? Do you think there will be more signs of Chinese influence in Costa Rica?
Yes. There are other projects that we are developing. I think that Chinatown will take a while to develop and to become a complement to the city. It is not easy to construct a Chinatown such as the ones in New York or San Francisco, in the United States. The development of Chinatowns in other countries has taken more than 100 years or even centuries. I think it will take a long time, but I think it is a very good idea. I think that on that street and in that part of the city (Paseo de los Estudiantes, between Avenidas 2 and 14) it is already part of the local agenda, as there are already many Chinese restaurants and locations there. It is not going to be a pure Chinatown with only Chinese people, but it will be a place of traditional and cultural exchange between the countries.
China is also helping Costa Rica expand the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE), or it is at least looking into the possibility of doing so. Do you think this is likely to happen?
Yes. The project is in the process of negotiations, and it has already made advances. The company from China, a Petrochemical company, is going to participate in a profound project of co-investment to expand and improve the existing refinery. The refinery has been functioning for 50 years, but it needs improvements in order to better meet national and Central American energy needs. We already have the experience to develop a project of this size. I think the refinery will be beneficial for both countries.
China has established free-trade agreements with Peru and Chile. Is China trying to establish more presence in Latin America? Also, why did China choose Costa Rica to establish the first free-trade agreement in Central America? Is China thinking of creating relationships with other countries in the region, as well?
We already have established diplomatic relations with the majority of the countries in South America. In Central America, Costa Rica is the first country to establish diplomatic relations with China. We are willing to develop diplomatic relations with every country in world …. China already has established diplomatic relations with more than170 countries. All of (these) countries recognize China, the government of China, the People’s Republic of China, as the only and legitimate government that represents all of China, including Taiwan. The countries that want to establish diplomatic relations with China must respect these principles.
What do you think Costa Rica will see with the signing of the free-trade agreement with China? Do you think that Costa Rica will see more Chinese products or a stronger Chinese influence in various markets?
The free-trade agreement between the two countries establishes the highest level of relationship regarding business and economic development. That type of relationship will surely impact and influence life in the two countries in many ways. There will be a greater flow of business exchange, trade, more investment and a bigger space to development operations in trade and services. The countries are going to feel the impact that comes with this type of agreement.
Some in Costa Rica, such as in the Chamber of Industries or in textiles or in the food production sector, fear that Chinese producers and products are going to take away a part of the local market. What do you think?
I think the free-trade agreement favors both countries. Trade will grow and improve the competiveness of the products of the two countries. Also, the two countries have different needs in terms of food, meaning competition will not exist in those areas. The products of the two countries complement each other and, with this free-trade agreement, a large market is opened to Costa Rica. With 1.3 billion people, China is the biggest market in the world and, because of that, I think the products of Costa Rica will be able to enjoy unprecedented growth … I don’t think this agreement represents any sort of threat for either country or for their producers, but rather an opportunity for both parties.
There is an obvious Chinese presence in Costa Rica. Is there any visible evidence of a Costa Rican presence in China?
Yes, since the establishment of diplomatic relations there has been growth But, in China, Costa Rica is not a very well-known country. Costa Rica is rarely mentioned by the press, and it is known mostly only by the soccer players. (laughs) All of the soccer fans know that Costa Rica plays soccer well. But now that we have established relations, I think China will know more about Costa Rica, particularly after the visit of our president to Costa Rica. His visit was shown on television across the country, and the people were able to see that Costa Rica is a beautiful country and that it is very diverse ecologically, caring of the environment and a major producer of coffee, bananas and other agricultural products. It generated interest to come and visit the country.
A large number of Chinese tourists travel to Europe and within Asia. Every year, nearly 50 million Chinese tourists travel, but not many come to Latin America because it is far away. But it is inevitable that more Chinese tourists will begin to come here. Costa Rica has the opportunity to attract more tourists, and that is good for Costa Rica. This relationship might also encourage more Costa Ricans to visit China.