Gandásegui, Panama between the United States and China

The Chinese commercial fleet has been the first beneficiary of an expanded Panama Canal. Photo by Fleet Management.

Panama, between the USA and China

by Marco A. Gandásegui, hijo

The president of the United States, Donald Trump, is finishing an Asia trip that included five countries that are key to Panama’s future. In his visit to China in particular the two most powerful world leaders met. Moreover, it was a meeting of the canal’s two most important users. Between these two economic powers, more than 80 percent of all the maritime traffic through our waterway was represented. Moreover, Trump visited Japan and South Korea, the next most important users after the two previously mentioned.

President Varela should take advantage of the opportunity to add to Trump’s trip. Perhaps the agenda will have another tone, but they will discuss the same problems. Like Trump, Varela would have to put two intimately related topics on the table. In the first place, he has to as if the policies that were recently approved by the Chinese Communist Party Congress will affect that giant country’s foreign commerce, and by the way, transits through the Panama Canal. Second, China apparently decided to give another boost to the so-called “Silk Road.” It’s looking toward Central Asia and Europe, but Beijing also would give a privileged place to Latin America.

Trump has a dual agenda for his trip. On the one hand, recall that for the East Asian countries Washington has geopolitical intentions to continue as the power that dominated the region in the second half of the 20th century. On this chess board the United States plays a key role in keeping the conflict with North Korea going. On the other hand the US president attents to resolve problems related to its trade deficit, especially with China. Trump insists that China’s President Xi cooperate with his policy of generating more industrial jobs in the USA.

In Panama’s case, all indications are that the Chinese have three objectives. The first refers to the Panama Canal and the need to keep it in service for their global policy of world commerce. The second is related to investments that it plans to make in Panama for the short term: land transport, agro-industry and tourism. The third and last is perhaps the most audacious on the part of the Chinese: to turn Panama into its center of operations to consolidate trade and economic ties with the entire Latin American region.

The Chinese also have plans for the immediate future and also over the long term. Trump moved quickly and his tour of the Far East is proof of that. There is fear in the United States that China — which freed itself from Western domination in 1949 — could make a qualitative and technological leap — economic and military — in the 21st century. China has, at present, an economic potential equal to that of the United States. Its financial capacity will be equal to or greater than that of Washington in a few years. Trump’s specialists say that at some point in the 21st century they will have the same military power. The enormous cultural power of the United States is sometimes overlooked, and how this propaganda machine has prevailed over all resistance in the whole world. Could China match the US in the field of media, social networks, cinema, music and other areas that Washington dominates? Will the Chinese be thinking about this challenge for the 21st century. or will they postpone it for the 22nd century? They do not show signs of being in a hurry.

So before finishing a year in the White House, Trump went to China.

For Panama’s part, it will have to put together a working team with reference to relations with China in the short term but also with a long view. The team can’t be partisan and much less of those who try to benefit by any sort of “checkbook” policy. Panama has to propose its own investment plan for the Panama Canal area’s next 10 years. Moreover, it has to identify its priorities for national development, through about 2040, and what that implies in terms of investment in transportation infrastructure, agriculture and industry. Finally, Panama has to propose, over the long term (think 2060) a strategy to turn itself into a center of regional operations, with global projections, with maritime, air and land transport dimensions.

Trump surpassed us. He has a lot more people working on the matter in his administration. Panama has to get to work, to prevent China from taking possession of the isthmus without us realizing it.


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