China and El Salvador see intensive governmental and civil interactions upon establishing diplomatic ties

By Xing Xiaojing in El Salvador Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/9 17:58:41

Located in the historic center of the city of San Salvador, Plaza Libertad is enshrined as a national icon. Photo: IC

In 2018, El Salvador became the latest country which China established diplomatic relations with

Incoming president has made remarks that have cast shadow over ties between the two countries

Establishment of ties with China brings new economic opportunities for impoverished nation

"Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!" The proverb applies to Mexico, but the same could go for the Central American country, El Salvador.

The country has a deep-rooted relationship with the US, but complicated bitter-sweet feelings toward its neighbor have emerged in recent years.

In August, 2018, a joint communique was signed by China and El Salvador on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Since then, the two countries have seen intensive governmental and civil interactions. However, remarks by the newly elected Salvadorian president Nayib Bukele have cast a shadow on China-Salvadorian relations.

At the end of April, as a member of a Chinese media delegation that officially visited El Salvador for the first time, this Global Times reporter tried to learn more about this country through field trips and dialogue with governmental officials, academics and ordinary people of the country.

A vendor sells fruits on a street in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo: Xing Xiaojing/GT

American influence

With a territory of 21,000 square kilometers and a population of 6.5 million, El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. For decades, the country has been labeled the "backyard" of the US. "Boston" Ice Cream, McDonald's, Pizza Hut and other American fast-food restaurants can be seen everywhere on the streets. 

Salvadorians are an incredibly diligent people. Schools start at 6 am, and the work day generally starts from 7:20 am.

Most Salvadorians have to work extremely hard to earn a living. Vendors wander and tout their wares through the busy traffic, and peddlers carry buckets of water selling cups to pedestrians.

A reporter based in Latin America told the Global Times that due to the weak development of industry and manufacturing, the country is highly dependent on imports of tools. Even a trolley is hard to get in El Salvador.

During the visit, this Global Times reporter found that the country has been haunted by high unemployment and crime rates. At the same time, its weak industrial foundation has put it into the category of lower-middle income countries.

Immigrant remittance is another channel the US utilizes to control the economy of El Salvador. On January 1, 2001, the then Salvadorian president Francisco Flores Pérez adopted a monetary policy of dollarization, which brought the country huge debts and massive inflation. In the following years, overseas workers' remittance became an important pillar of the country's economy.

A local Chinese resident told the Global Times that there are several flights between El Salvador and the US which are often full. Salvadorians working in the US tend to support the entire family. Because of their huge economic contribution to the country, airliners choose to turn a blind eye to their overweight luggage. 

An indigenous dancer sings during a celebration on the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on August 09, 2016 in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo: VCG

Chinese opportunities

The establishment of diplomatic relations with China has brought new opportunities to El Salvador. An exchange activity called "Chinese online celebrities seeing the world" with the participation of diplomats, academics and media professionals was held in late April by China Public Diplomacy Association at Colegio de Altos Estudios Estratégicos, a senior military college that advises on national security. Senior officials, including the country's defense minister, showed a keen interest in China, asking about information on cooperation, how the two economies can complement each other and how to expand cooperation to sectors other than agriculture.

A similar event in La Universidad de El Salvador attracted more than 300 students. The university is the largest higher education institution with the longest history in the country, as well as the only public one. Only the country's top students make it to the university, but few of them speak fluent English.

Things are very different in Escuela de Comunicación Mónica Herrera, which was founded in 1994. The private college has small classes where students sit with Apple laptops on their desks, speaking fluent English. 

In a country with an average monthly income of $300, tuition fees of $7,000 per year at the college seem beyond most people's reach.

Facing a sluggish economy and lack of social mobility, studying in China has become a new option for ordinary people to change their futures.

Emmanuel Mercado, a 23-year-old graduate from La Universidad de El Salvador, told the Global Times that he learned about China through the internet and books, and is now a big fan of the Huawei cellphone.

He said he aims to study in China with a Chinese government scholarship. To this end, he attends 60 hours of Chinese language class every month at his own expense. Soon, Mercado will be able to study Chinese free of charge when a Confucius Institute is established in La Universidad de El Salvador.

The Chinese ambassador to El Salvador, Ou Jianhong, told the Global Times that currently a total of 34 students from El Salvador are studying in China, and this year, another 35 will go to China for further education under Chinese government scholarships.

Although it has been only eight months since China and El Salvador established diplomatic relations, the interaction between the two countries has seen rapid growth. Ou told the Global Times that the frequent interaction between the two countries started at the high level when President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador paid an official visit to China and attended the first China International Import Expo in November, 2018.

Additionally, a Salvadorian governmental delegation and Minister of Agriculture and Livestock have visited China. In terms of trade, a delegation sent by China Council for the Promotion of International Trade visited El Salvador to build ties with Salvadorian companies.

According to the Chinese Embassy in El Salvador, the trade volume between the two countries was $1 billion in 2018. China has become the second largest exporter to El Salvador, and El Salvador's exports to China have also seen robust growth. The Chinese side invited two Salvadorian media delegations to China in a bid to help the Salvadorian people know China better.

Carlos Portillo, secretary of the Salvadorian president's press office, told the Global Times, "The visit clarified many misunderstandings and biases we had on China, and we were astonished to see new things emerge in China on a daily basis." Portillo had just come back from a visit to China, in which he led a delegation and visited many Chinese cities and major infrastructure projects. 

"There are many aspects El Salvador needs to learn from China, and it is critically important to seek cooperation with China," Portillo added.

Out of the darkness

El Salvador's newly elected president Nayib Bukele will take power in June.

However, the incoming president made a negative remark on relations with China in the US, stirring doubts in the international community about whether the incoming president will reevaluate the country's relationship with China.

José Vicente Cuchillas Melara, dean of the humanities department of La Universidad de El Salvador, told the Global Times that he is afraid the new president will tilt toward the US, which will cast a cloud on its relationship with China. Cuchillas deemed El Salvador's establishment of diplomatic relations with China as "awaking from darkness," and hopes the government will grasp the opportunity to boost bilateral exchanges on both economy and trade.

Cuchillas believes US influence remains, but is less than it was before.

Roberto Artiga Chicas, dean of the Colegio de Altos Estudios Estrategicos, told the Global Times that El Salvador does maintain a close relationship with the US, while China is impressive in terms of economic development. He noted El Salvador hopes to develop its economy and is interested in joining the Belt and Road Initiative, if the initiative can benefit its people. Chicas said that the college has boosted its research into China-related subjects, and aims to deepen exchanges and communication with Chinese research institutes.

There are signs that El Salvador is eager to grasp the tremendous opportunity brought by China while fearing pressure from the US side. "The world is paying attention to China, and so is El Salvador," said Lorenzana Duran, an official from the president's press office, adding that "President Sánchez has made the most important decision on diplomacy in his tenure, which is establishing diplomatic relations with China."

Carlos Castaneda, Minister of El Salvador's Foreign Affairs, said that a total of 15 cooperation agreements have been signed by the two countries, and El Salvador cherishes its relationship with China.

Jiang Shixue, Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Shanghai University, said that the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and El Salvador represents the general trend because of China's rising international influence. On the other hand, compared with other Latin American countries such as Panama and Dominica, El Salvador and China did not establish a trade development office before the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Newspaper headline: Rocky start


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