Costa Rica Key Stop for Chinese President on Trip to Region

By Genevieve Long

A trip this week by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Costa Rica further cemented the two countries’ burgeoning diplomatic and economic relationship. Hu stopped in the Central American nation to meet with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias for 24 hours on Nov. 17 during a whirlwind trip that included Cuba and Peru.

In June, 2007, Costa Rica became the first and only country in Central America to break a decades-long relationship with Taiwan in favor of China. China does not recognize Taiwan’s status as an independent nation, and is lobbying other countries in the region to abandon diplomatic and economic ties with the island nation.

Some items topping the agenda during Hu’s trip to Costa Rica included finalizing plans to financially support an oil refinery in Móin and a new national stadium in La Sabana Park near the national capitol of San Jose. The two presidents signed a total of 11 agreements on free trade, education, and energy.

China promised an additional $10 million to construct the new stadium in La Sabana Park. Destruction of the old stadium began in May, 2007, but rebuilding has yet to begin. The estimated cost is $83 million, and construction workers are expected to be imported from China.

Hu and Arias also announced that their nations would begin negotiations on a free trade agreement on Jan. 19 in San Jose. A start date for negotiations of the agreement was a key item that was up for discussion.

The agreement could face adversaries, though. The hotly contested Tratado de Libre de Comercio (TLC)—free trade agreement with the United States, Central America and the Dominican Republic—went to a final vote in the national assembly just days before the visit from China.

The ties between the two countries are already bound largely by money. By the reckoning of a September, 2008 report by the think tank the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C., Chinese imports from Costa Rica exceed $1 billion annually.

According to an English-language newspaper in Cost Rica, The Tico Times, The China National Petroleum Corporation will also help Costa Rica expand its oil refinery at a cost of $1 billion between the two countries.

Confucius Institute

Among agreements made during the visit, it was also announced that The University of Costa Rica will also house a Confucius Institute, billed as a way to spread Chinese language and culture. There have been widespread concerns about Confucius Institutes established universities in other countries.

Confucius Institutes are considered to be similar to France’s Alliance Francais and Germany’s Goethe Institutes in the way they are government funded and organised to promote language and culture but according to Australia’s Adelaide University academics, Professor Purnendra Jain and Dr. Gerry Groot, there are distinct differences.

“Those European organizations… locate their offices in normal commercial locations wherever their governments can rent appropriate space,” they write on Asia Times online. “There is no attempt to integrate them into their host societies via institutional link-ups.”

“In contrast, the Confucius Institutes are being incorporated into leading universities and colleges around the world as well as being linked to China not only by their Hanban [Chinese Office for language] connections, but also by supportive twinning arrangements with key Chinese universities,” they said.

This would be totally inappropriate she said as “it would be more difficult for academics to maintain their freedom and independence.”

Professor Chey said there were many others that shared her concerns about Beijing’s use of “soft power” or persuasive means to influence regional perceptions of it.

“They [the Chinese] are in a more sophisticated way using trade, aid and cultural exchanges of one kind and another to influence public opinion around the world to create an atmosphere which makes it easier to achieve their political objectives,” she said, “and the establishment of Confucius institutes is part of that international campaign.”

Joshua Kurlantzick author of the book China’s Charm: Implications of Chinese Soft Power said China was downplaying its military power (hard power) while highlighting its “soft power” in different regions. This “could be disastrous for…democratization, for anticorruption initiatives, and for good governance.”

With additional reporting by Shar Adams.

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