Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Costa Rica on Sunday for trade talks, as Beijing boosts its profile in a region long considered America’s backyard.
Xi arrived at 8 p.m. local time at Juan Santamaría International Airport, outside San José, on a flight from Trinidad and Tobago. He was welcomed by Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo.
During his visit to Costa Rica – the only country that has diplomatic relations with the Asian giant in Central America, where most countries align with Taiwan – the Chinese leader will meet his counterpart Laura Chinchilla, as well as lawmakers and other officials.
He and his wife, Peng Liyuan, a soprano singer who has stolen the spotlight during the trip, will later travel to a rural village near the capital before attending a gala dinner hosted by Chinchilla.
Xi arrived in Costa Rica after a three-day stop in oil-rich, English-speaking Trinidad and Tobago, the first by a Chinese president. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had visited Port of Spain just days before for a summit with Caribbean basin leaders.
The Chinese president focused on trade and energy issues in talks with Caribbean leaders.
“What I found so impressive in the president of China is that he treated the leaders of small Caribbean nations no differently to how he would treat the president of United States” or Britain’s leader, Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie said.
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller expressed hope that “something happens, something positive, for our region” after Biden and Xi’s visits.
China’s growing interest in the region is “very constructive,” said Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.
“It’s a signal to us in the Caribbean that China has been taking us seriously, they have responded to the solidarity we have express them, particularly in the one China policy.”
While all of these Caribbean countries, along with Trinidad and Tobago, recognize Beijing, five other Caribbean nations have forged diplomatic relations with self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
The two split in 1949 after a civil war.
Christie also made a pitch for increasing tourism from China, and spoke to Xi about the need for direct flights to the Bahamas and relaxing visa requirements for tourists.
“China is an excellent place to look for tourists,” said Christie, who said tourism was “the most effective and quickest way to generate economic activity.”
Xi also met with the leaders of Suriname, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Barbados.
Separately, Chinese Politburo member Guo Jinlong was on an official visit to nearby Cuba, an island that Xi was not scheduled to visit.
China signed seven agreements with Cuba to increase bilateral cooperation on trade, transportation, tourism and biotechnology, state media reported.
China, one of Cuba’s main political allies, is the communist island’s second most important trade partner after Venezuela, and one of its main sources of credit.
Xi pledged to boost assistance to Caribbean nations, including sending 100 medical staff to the Caribbean region, training 100 part-time postgraduate students and providing government scholarships for 1,000 students.
He then wrapped up his Caribbean visit and headed to Costa Rica, ahead of visits to North American neighbors Mexico and the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama will hold an informal summit with Xi on Friday in Rancho Mirage, California, the first since the Chinese leader took office in March.
Xi is accompanied by a staff of more than 100 people.
On Monday morning, Xi will meet privately with Chinchilla at Casa Presidencial in the southeastern district of Zapote, where they will sign several bilateral cooperation agreements, particularly on infrastructure projects.
In the afternoon, the Chinese delegation will travel to the Legislative Assembly in the center of the capital, and San José Mayor Johnny Araya, who has traveled several times to China in recent years, will present Xi with a key to the city.
The president and his wife will then travel to a small village outside the capital – the exact location is secret – to meet with a family.
Monday night, Chinchilla will host a dinner at the National Theater, where Xi will close the agenda of official activities.
Xi arrives with a portfolio full of economic aid projects to consolidate China’s relationship with Costa Rica and to entice other Central American countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama belong to a small club of 23 countries that still maintain relations with Taiwan, which China considers a rebel territory. Costa Rica severed official relations with Taiwan six years ago, breaking a diplomatic tradition that dated back some 60 years.
Since then, China has become the single largest donor to Costa Rica, with $160 million in gifts ranging from computers for schools to an $80 million sports arena on the western edge of San José.
In response, Taiwan has stepped up its own donor programs in other Central American countries. Taiwan donates up to $50 million annually to Nicaragua alone, for example.
One of the programs Costa Rica and China will discuss is the modernization and expansion of Route 32, the highway that stretches from San José to the Caribbean coast. China is expected to issue Costa Rica a low-interest $400 million loan for the project, which ends at the Caribbean port of Limón, where China hopes to develop a new oil refinery.
Trade, investment and environmental technology also are on the agenda for discussions.
Opposition lawmakers have expressed concern over what they describe as the secretive nature of items on the discussion agenda, including the refinery on the Caribbean coast. Lawmaker Claudio Monge, of the Citizen Action Party, accused the Chinchilla administration of “writing a blank check” to China,” crhoy.com reported.
“We don’t even know what they’re going to sign, because we haven’t seen the text [of the agreements],” Monge said.
Traffic in the Central Valley will be disrupted in several areas during the extent of Xi’s stay until Tuesday. On Sunday night, police will close 2nd Avenue and Paseo Colón in San José at 11 p.m. The roads will be closed to traffic until 9 p.m. on Monday.
Other routes may be temporarily disrupted on Monday as the president’s motorcade moves through the city, first to Casa Presidencial, later to the Legislative Assembly, Hotel Real InterContinental, in the southwestern suburb of Escazú, and finally to the National Theater.
Updated Monday at 12:14 a.m.