SAN JOSE (AFP)–Costa Rica is prepared to negotiate a free trade deal with China next year, the foreign trade minister said here Monday ahead of a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao next week.

“The ministry now has enough criteria” to support negotiating a free trade deal with China, Marco Vinicio Ruiz told journalists here, adding that the decision could be announced next Monday to coincide with Hu’s presence, in the highest-level visit by a Chinese official to the country.

Ruiz dismissed fears from local businesses of an invasion of Chinese products on the tiny Costa Rican market under a free trade deal.

“It would be difficult for more products to enter than already enter” from China, Ruiz said, underlining the potential Chinese market of 1.3 billion people and China’s GDP that has grown an average of 9% annually in recent years. The trade balance has favored Costa Rica up until now, with $848 million of exports last year, compared with $763 million of Chinese imports.

More than 90% of Costa Rica’s current exports to China are in integrated electronic circuits, but the country also exports coffee, fruit and vegetables, jams, leather goods, switches and semi-conductors. China, meanwhile, exports products including textiles, footwear, iron and steel, plastic, machinery and equipment, vehicles and furniture.

A trade deal would increase Chinese imports by 10%, and exports to China by 16%, the minister said, adding that he would like to begin negotiations in the first quarter of 2009. Costa Rica, the only Central American country to hold diplomatic relations with China rather than Taiwan, would be the third Latin American country to negotiate a free trade deal with China, after Chile and Peru, which hasn’t yet concluded its accord.

Costa Rica broke off more than 60 years of relations with Taiwan when it began diplomatic ties with China on June 1, 2007.

Costa Rica’s congress meanwhile was due to debate Tuesday reforms of intellectual property laws, the last step before entering a free trade deal between the U.S., the Dominican Republic and Central America