China's latest proposal to help build Panama's railways is a proposed high-speed line connecting the country's capital with the western province of Chiriqui, which borders Costa Rica.
China's involvement in Panamanian railroads goes back more than 160 years to the many Chinese workers who were hired to help build the interoceanic railroad starting in 1849, before the Panama Canal was built to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Just five months after the establishment of diplomatic ties in June last year, the two countries signed a collaboration memorandum to promote cooperation in technology and enhance the role of China's financial institutions in Panama's rail network, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planner.
In December last year, China's Ministry of Commerce confirmed it would finance a feasibility study for a railway connecting Panama City with David, the capital of Chiriqui province.
The study will analyze the viability, benefits, technical parameters and other factors involved in building a rail system.
The train would reduce travel time for passengers and freight between Chiriqui province and the national capital, which can take eight to 10 hours on the Pan-American Highway, as well as serve cities along its route. Flights between David and Panama City take about an hour.
"The new railway is expected to greatly cut travel time and thus facilitate the movement of agricultural products along the route. It will bring convenience to travelers who want to transfer at the capital's airport," said Mai Qijia, director of the Panama Association for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China.
The plan to build a new railway comes at a time when efforts have been made to commemorate the first group of Chinese workers to arrive in Panama in the mid-19th century and the subsequent people-to-people ties that have grown between Chinese and Panamanians.
Records from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council show that about 4,000 Chinese workers were hired by a company from the United States to work on what is now called the Panama Canal Railway from 1849 to 1854.
"Some died on the ship to Panama, and some died of tropical diseases or lived under extremely miserable conditions," Mai said.
As a result of those early Chinese workers and others that arrived later, people of Chinese ancestry are a significant minority group in Panama. Their descendants have spread out to other nations in the Americas.
For years the Panamanian government didn't acknowledge the contributions made by Chinese, and years of exclusionary laws against Chinese people hampered the search for the workers' bodies, Mai said.
However, people of Chinese ancestry in Panama have shown their capability to boost development and have built friendships.
In 2010, Mai participated in a mission that eventually located the graves of many missing workers. Each was marked with a block of stone inscribed with an employee number.
"The scene was heart-wrenching," Mai said. Chinese associations in Panama collected money to inter the remains according to the customs of Guangdong province, the home of the majority of the workers.
Memorials have also been built in memory of Chinese workers in Panama, erected not only as a remembrance of history but also as a testament to the advancing cooperation between the countries.
"I am looking forward to seeing China utilize its experience in building bullet trains and freight trains to help ramp up Panama's infrastructure," Mai said.
"Nowadays, there are mutual interests in cooperation. I understand that issues like different labor laws and land-use regulations might pose challenges in the process of building the new railway, but we believe in the potential of China's involvement in Panama."