China stays close to El Salvador

While relations between the Salvadoran government and the Biden administration in Washington are currently strained, China continues to advance its own agenda through support of various projects in El Salvador.  Most recently, Chinese "vaccine diplomacy" was deployed in El Salvador with a donation of 150,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine and the facilitation of purchases of 2 million more.   

El Salvador broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established diplomatic ties with the Peoples Republic of China in 2018 during the FMLN administration of Salvador Sanchez Ceren.  The Chinese promised $150 million in donations and were pushing forward to acquire rights to manage the port of La Union.    

The El Salvador-China relationship was reset after Nayib Bukele defeated the FMLN to become president.  At the outset, as he wooed the US, Bukele appeared to favor a more distant relationship with China.  Shortly after his election, he spoke to Trump administration advisor John Bolton who warned Bukele of "Chinese predatory practices" to which Bukele responded in a tweet that the US would find in El Salvador "not just an ally, but a friend."    

A short time later, in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, before he took office, Bukele stated that China "does not play by the rules," was “not a democracy” and “meddles” in the democracies of other nations. He said that he would want El Salvador and China to maintain friendly relations, based not on “money or investment, but respect”. He also said that “They develop projects that are not feasible, leaving countries with huge debt that cannot be paid back and use that as financial leverage.” 

On April 1, 2019, Bukele tweeted that China was making a “grave error” by inviting FMLN legislative deputies to come visit the country.  

But after Bukele took over as president, however, he quickly warmed to what China was offering to provide El Salvador. Bukele made a state visit to Beijing in December 2019. where China promised El Salvador $500 million in development projects, including a sports stadium and a new $40 million national library in San Salvador, a new tourist pier in La Libertad, $85 million to improve water treatment facilities in La Libertad and Ilopango, and $200 million to support Bukele’s “Surf City” project.

Progress on many of those projects would soon be slowed, however, by the global coronavirus pandemic. Bukele was one of the early world leaders to ban all travel from China at the end of January 2020 because of early impact of the coronavirus in the Asian country.

The projects promised during Bukele's trip to China are still on the way.  In early March of this year, it was announced in El Salvador that China would be investing $4 million in the tourism development at the pier in Puerto de La Libertad, and would be donating five amusement park rides for the development including a roller coaster and carousel. 

On March 28, one million doses of CoronaVac vaccine against COVID-19 arrived in El Salvador, which had purchased them from Chinese pharmaceutical company SinoVac.  A little more than a week later on April 6, El Salvador received a donation of another 150,000 vaccine doses of CoronaVac.  This donation arrived one day before US president Joe Biden’s special envoy, Ricardo Zúniga, arrived in El Salvador and with whom Nayib Bukele declined to meet or even acknowledge that he had been in the country.

Chinese ambassador to El Salvador Ou Jianhong

In a recent interview by Salvadoran journalist Roberto Valencia, China’s ambassador to El Salvador Ou Jianhong described the progress of the projects promised when Bukele visited Beijing. “The construction of the pier in La Libertad has already started, and the construction of the new National Stadium and the National Library are being actively prepared.”  She pointed to the arrival of the CoronaVac vaccine in El Salvador as the result of joint efforts by Nayib Bukele and Chinese president Xi Jinping and authorities in both countries.  She stated:
The virus knows no borders and is the common enemy of all humanity. Chinese medical experts have shared the experiences and the diagnosis and treatment plan on covid-19 with their Salvadoran counterparts on two occasions. China has also offered urgent cash humanitarian assistance and three donations of medical supplies. The recent cooperation on vaccines is yet another manifestation. China is in a position to maintain its close collaboration with El Salvador, in order to bring more benefits to the Salvadoran people, and to continue taking our relationship of friendship to a new level.
The US relationship with El Salvador will always be too important for Salvadoran leaders to ignore, in light of the percentage of its population which lives in North America, the dependence of the Salvadoran economy on remittances from abroad, and the US importance as a trading partner.  US goods and services trade with El Salvador totaled an estimated $8.1 billion in 2019.  Imports from the US were $4.9 billion; exports were $3.3 billion.  In contrast, Salvadoran exports to China in 2019 were $171.8 million. 

China's approach to developing its relationship with El Salvador is simple. Provide funding and investments for the type of highly visible projects favored by Bukele. Look for opportunities to advance your own commercial interests in ports and logistics and tourism properties.  Don't talk about things like corruption, human rights or press freedom.  So far that is a formula which has worked with the Salvadoran president.