China’s new ambassador to Chile Niu Qingbao denied that Chinese reports on imported cherries testing positive for traces of coronavirus were “retaliation” against the Latin American nation, and talked up the prospects for closer cooperation on 5G and mineral investment.
Niu, who was officially appointed to the ambassador role in early March, told Chilean newspaper La Tercera on Sunday that relations between the countries were at a “historical high”, dismissing concerns in Chile that stories circulating in China about contaminated cherries had devastated Chilean exports of the fruit.
“Regarding the export of cherries to China, there is no so-called retaliation against the Chilean side,” he said in a written response to the paper.
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Niu was referring to speculation in Chile that Chinese officials had not clarified the reports – which did not say where the cherries had been imported from – to potentially send a warning over concerns such as Chinese investments in the country.
“The speculation is purely imagined and has no factual basis,” he said.
Chile, one of the world’s largest exporters of cherries, had sought to quell concerns over the fruit, but public fears sent cherry prices into a tailspin. The Chilean embassy in China earlier denied that the batch of imported cherries in Jiangxi province that tested positive for Covid-19 in late December had originated from Chile.
Niu’s interview comes as Beijing’s influence has grown across Latin America through its vast trade and investments there, with Washington keen to boost its waning influence on the continent. Chile is also facing a potentially tumultuous year, with a Constitutional Convention poll in April to rewrite the country’s constitution, and a general election in November.
For Chile, China has been the country’s largest trading partner for over a decade, and a signatory in recent years to Beijing’s vast belt and road development drive.
Chile joined other countries in giving emergency approval to a Chinese coronavirus vaccine, CoronaVac, in its bid to immunise around 5 million people by the end of March. President Sebastian Pinera received a second dose of the vaccine on Friday.
Niu in the interview, published by China’s embassy in Santiago on Tuesday, also called on Chinese companies to invest further in Chile’s lithium resources.
China is the world’s largest consumer of lithium – used in batteries common in phones, cars and planes – that is in high supply in nations including Chile. Chinese company Tianqi Lithium, one of the world’s largest producers of the mineral, has been struggling in recent years as lithium prices have nosedived after it bought a minority stake in its Chilean rival SQM, formally known as Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile, in 2018.
“The Chinese government encourages Chinese companies to take part in the development of Chile’s lithium resources based on principles of mutual benefit and win-win results,” Niu said.
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He also addressed concerns over Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, which countries such as the United States have banned from their 5G infrastructure over national security concerns. Chile’s trade vice-minister Rodrigo Yanez Benitez has previously said that the country would not exclude Huawei from its 5G network.
“Every country, including Chile, has the right to carry out digital technology and economic development strategy based on their country’s conditions, and in the implementation of 5G technology, should not face political pressure or interference from external forces,” Niu told the Chilean paper. “China will not interfere in any country’s choice for 5G partners, but will resolutely reject the US acting out of political intentions, and utilising administrative measures to interfere or exclude Chinese businesses.”
Washington has lobbied US allies to follow suit in barring Huawei from its 5G networks, with fears that Beijing could use the 5G equipment to spy on other countries and steal their data. Huawei has insisted it is a private company that would refuse any data requests from the Chinese government.
Niu also addressed concerns about China’s growing investments in Chile, including Chinese state-owned company State Grid’s announcement in November that it would acquire Chilean electricity distributor CGE in addition to another local distributor Chilquinta Energia that it bought earlier in 2020. Asked by La Tercera if the moves could trigger foreign investment controls from the Chilean government, Niu said he hoped the country would “give all foreign investment the same treatment, as it has in the past”.
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