PANAMA CITY (Reuters) -- The Panama Canal administration on
Wednesday dismissed the fears of some U.S. conservatives that the Panama
Canal will fall under Chinese influence when it reverts to Panama at year's
"Concerns about the Chinese taking control of the canal are completely
unfounded and based on a misunderstanding," Joseph Cornelison, deputy
administrator of the Panama Canal Commission (PCC), told Reuters.
Cornelison's comments came in response to the delivery of a petition with
250,000 signatures to Congress on Tuesday that called on U.S. President
Bill Clinton to revoke a 1977 treaty ceding U.S. control of the Panama
Canal to Panama on Dec. 31.
Representative Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia who presented the
appeal to Congress, repeated concerns expressed by Senate Majority
Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, in a letter to the U.S. defence
secretary in August that canal security was "threatened" by Chinese
In 1997, the Hong Kong-based shipping company Hutchison Whampoa,
which controls 10 percent of global maritime container traffic, acquired port
operations at Balboa and Cristobal, on the Pacific and Atlantic approaches
to the Panama Canal.
Sen. Lott has argued that the proximity of Hutchison's operations to the
canal's entrance would place U.S. naval ships "at the mercy of
But Cornelison disputed this.
"While the ports are near the entrance to the canal, they are not the entrance
of the canal," he said. "The PCC controls what ships go into the ports and
not the other way round. Ships cannot enter canal waters until the PCC
assigns a pilot."
The PCC, which operates as an agency of the U.S. federal government, will
be replaced by the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) after the handover. The
PCA will be run as a nonpolitical state entity, sheltered by the Panamanian Constitution.
Hutchison Whampoa issued a communique in August denying that there
were any mainland Chinese interests in the company's Panamanian
subsidiary, the Panama Ports Company, or that company chairman Li
Ka-shing had "any connection whatsoever with the People's Liberation
Army," as Lott maintained.
Last week, Pentagon officials dismissed concerns for the security of the
waterway after it passes to Panamanian control.
"We have nothing to indicate that the Chinese have the slightest desire
somehow control the Panama Canal," Rear Admiral Craig Quigley told
reporters on Sept. 28.
Copyright 1999 Reuters.