Ghosts of the Cold War

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Old cold warriors never die, they just get more paranoid. A prime example is Sen. Trent Lott's request--and Sen. John Warner's assent--for the Senate Armed Services to investigate allegations that China is undermining U.S. security by attempting to gain control of shipping through the strategic Panama Canal. Nothing could be more preposterous.

Some conservatives argue that the Panama Ports Company, which won along-term contract to operate the port facilities at both ends of thecanal, and the owner of its Hong Kong-based affiliate Hutchison-WhampoaLtd. shipping company have links to China's People's Liberation Army andintelligence services. Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the JointChiefs of Staff, goes even further: "Hutchison-Whampoa controls countlessports around the world. My specific concern is that this company iscontrolled by the Communist Chinese. And they have virtually accomplished,without a single shot being fired, a stronghold on the Panama Canal."

The alarmists also note that 10 percent of Panama Ports is owned by ChinaResources Enterprise (CRE), the commercial arm of China's Ministry of Tradeand Economic Cooperation. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) has called CRE anagent of espionage for China.

Yet do the Hutchison-Whampoa owner's links to the Chinese military andintelligence services and the Chinese government's ownership stake inPanama Ports necessarily constitute an insidious geopolitical plot by Chinato control a strategic asset in America's backyard? The contract by ashipping company to operate port facilities may simply be designed to makemoney. Even the Chinese government and military have routinely beenengaged in business activities overseas to turn a profit--for example, inthe food and clothing industries.

Because he felt that commercial distractions undermined the Chinesemilitary's effectiveness, Jiang Zemin, China's leader, recently ordered thearmed forces to get out of such activities. If those business ventureshave such a detrimental effect on China's military readiness, perhaps theUnited States should encourage the Chinese military to conduct morebusiness, not less even in the Western Hemisphere.

Furthermore, the Panama Canal Commission insists that Panama Ports cannotdetermine which ships can transit the canal. In fact, according to thePanama Canal Treaty of 1977 which ends U.S. military presence in Panama inDecember 1999, U.S. military vessels will continue to have priority forpassage through the isthmus.

Even if the Chinese business activities in Panama have a geopoliticalmotivation rather than a commercial one, they will likely have littlestrategic effect. After the demise of the Soviet Union, which was capableof launching simultaneous, coordinated attacks in the Atlantic and PacificOceans, the Panama Canal is much less important for U.S. security. Today,the two large American navies--the Atlantic and Pacific fleets--each canmaintain overwhelming dominance in their respective regions. Even duringthe Cold War, the Navy's capital ships--the aircraft carriers--were toolarge to fit through the canal.

The Chinese would probably be reluctant to close a waterway that they alsouse for commerce. In the worst case--if Panama Ports blocks the canal orrefuses U.S. Navy vessels passage during an international crisis--theworld's most powerful naval forces could open up the waterway rapidly.Even conservatives admit that the treaty allows the United States tointervene if access to the canal is blocked. Although the alarmists hintthat China could extend the range of its navy by controlling Panamanianports, the antiquated Chinese fleet has problems just patrolling the nearbySouth China Sea.

And exactly what would the "China threat" faction have the U.S. governmentdo about the situation? The sovereign government of Panama--finally incharge of all of its territory after a 96-year U.S. colonial presence--hasentered into a long-term contract with a private company for operation ofthe waterway. What right does the U.S. government have to veto commercialagreements by other governments? Should the United States invade Panamaagain and occupy the canal zone to assuage the paranoid fears of those whowould like China to be the enemy in a new Cold War?

According to Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern Commandwhen it was based in Panama and now the U.S. anti-drug czar, "We don't havevital national security interests in Panama." In addition to McCaffrey'sassessments, a report written in 1997 by a member of the staff of JesseHelms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also seemed todiscount threats to the canal. After conducting extensive discussions withU.S. and Panamanian government officials, the staff member concluded, "Allthose interviewed for this report state the HPH's [Hutchison Port Holdings]development of the two ports does not translate into a direct nationalsecurity threat to the Panama Canal."

Finally, the timing of the alarmists' shrill warnings is suspicious. Thesearch for threats to a man-made body of water that has declined instrategic importance is a desperate attempt to roll back thetreaty-mandated withdrawal, to take place in December of this year, of anunneeded U.S. military presence. Imperialist cold warriors just cannotbear to give up Panama. They will have postpartum depression, but the restof us can celebrate the rebirth of Panama without a humiliating andanachronistic colonial presence on its territory.