Commander of the US Southern Command General Laura J. Richardson. US Army official portrait. At her confirmation hearing before the US Senate, Richardson summed up the aim of her mission to Latin America and the Caribbean as “ensuring the United States remains the partner of choice in the region.”
That stuff about Panama Ports and
“The Chinese” in Panama — again
What’s with General Richardson going on Fox News and sounding the alarm about Chinese capabilities with respect to the Panama Canal in particular and Latin America in general? Best to discard conspiracy theories and look at it in broad terms of military doctrine, geopolitics and the international challenges of the moment.
You never know what might happen next, but Richardson is an administrator’s administrator who has done her time in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, one who has been fast-forwarded through military commands suggesting that her superiors are directing her toward the top of the Pentagon. Not some sort of reckless character, she’s cut closer to the mold of Dwight D. Eisenhower than that of George Armstrong Custer. She’s seasoned in US politics, having been Vice President Al Gore’s military aide and Pentagon liaison to the US Senate.
There are strains in popular culture and antiwar politics that imagine mad generals jumping off into insane adventures of their own volition, but they don’t fit THIS Screaming Eagle’s description. In what appears to be a calculated by politicians chess game with China, Richardson went where American conspiracy theorists would hear her and eat up her message, but the orders were from the Biden administration, not Donald Trump.
Might we surmise from published accounts of General Richardson’s life – born in Kansas City, raised in Colorado, married to a fellow general officer whom she now ranks, mother of one daughter – things about her personality and beliefs? Perhaps, but she’s too disciplined a soldier to have told us about her opinions on recent Supreme Court decisions, for whom she has voted or so on. Going on Fox News to talk about the Panama Canal and Latin America was a political move, but very unlikely to have been a decision made by herself alone
Yes, a Hong Kong private corporation with various and close ties to the Beijing government has since the late 90s run Panama Ports as its subsidiary, operating the ports of Balboa and Cristobal at either end of the Panama Canal. From Fort Clayton in the 1990s, we got a warning from Brigadier General Richard W. Anson that a potential enemy should be judged by capabilities rather than present intentions, and thus he thought it unwise to allow a Chinese company to hold ports at each end of the Panama Canal, where, perhaps by sneaking in special operations people, China could turn them into “choke points” to close the waterway.
In US right-wing politics all sorts of factions took this warning and ran with it, some of them more soberly and honestly than others. We saw early signs of the conspiratorial thinking and outright lies that now dominate the Republican Party – tales of Beijing dictating Panama Canal pilot assignments and so on.
Having been terribly set back by an October 1941 coup in Panama orchestrated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the politics of suspicion and hatred of Panama’s Chinese community saw a little revival both here and in the USA. It’s all pretty ridiculous, when you consider that the Chinese community, like the North American community, was first established in Panama in the middle of the 19th century. The chinos and the gringos are parts of the social mosaic that is Panama. It’s a reality notwithstanding what our home-grown racists, with our without foreign prompting, might say about it.
Meanwhile in Panama, it seems that the Panama Ports deal has not paid us as well as it should. That’s an issue for Panama, a contract and taxation matter in which the United States should have no say, but nevertheless a real issue for us.
Things became more complicated. With Panama facing a terrible debt crisis that has since become much worse, President Juan Carlos Varela made a decision to accede to Chinese demands to break relations with Taiwan in order to establish formal ties with the People’s Republic of China. The United States wasn’t really in any position to complain, as Washington had done the same decades earlier.
In Panama there were more ambivalent feelings, fed in part by Trump administration pronouncements.
China was and is a major world trading power and is a major user of the Panama Canal. Panama SHOULD have formal ties with China.
China as Panama’s new sugar daddy? Naive, short-term thinking that may serve some Panamanian official looking to take a bribe from a Chinese company but no basis at all for sound bilateral relations.
China as a threat to shut down the canal? Things have to get very desperate for that, because the Chinese use and need the canal, and would have to go to war with the United States to seize or destroy it.
But Chinese business “penetration” as a threat? Can we, for example, reasonably worry about Panama developing a 5G Internet system based on Huawei products? Perhaps. In 2006 a bot coming from China did shut down The Panama News for a few days, and much later we found that the probable reason was a story about a Falun Gong gathering in Parque Omar which, unbeknownst to us, was smuggled past the legendary if not impervious Chinese firewall and read online by a lot of people in China. So, the Chinese intercepting, shutting down or censoring Panama’s telecommunications? Panama should be as wary of that as of the United States doing so.
On a whole other range of business activity? Chinese engineering for transportation infrastructure in Panama or anywhere else in the region? A Chinese assembly plant in Colon to export tractors, trucks or cars via the Colon Free Zone? Any number of Chinese products in our grocery stores? Chinese weed whackers crowding out any US competition in our hardware stores?
General Richardson, in her moves through military assignments, received an education in military industry and was a military educator. Surely she must know that on the economic field China is a formidable competitor for the United States, that the rivalry is not going away anytime soon. Also, that to avoid being run off the field in this region the United States needs to FIX AMERICA. Fix US education. Set aside self-serving corporate dogmas and adopt a US industrial policy. Instead of threats against Panamanians who make deals with China, make them US offers that they will prefer.
And Taiwan? Was General Richardson’s appearance on the Australian billionaire’s right-wing propaganda channel a bit of the back-and-forth between China and the United States over the Taiwan question? Perhaps.
SOME of us in Panama remember Taiwan as a good friend of Panama for many years, and found the way that they were summarily and with little notice kicked out of this country appalling. There are people here who found it unacceptable that, after all of the problems Panama faced for rejecting US pressures to cut ties with Cuba, this country would cave to Chinese pressures to cut ties with Taiwan.
Might we accept China’s position that Taiwan is an integral part of China? Do we also have to take into account China’s claims with respect to waters between China and Japan, the South China Sea, Vietnam and Singapore? Do we have to accept China’s racial definition that anyone Han who lives anywhere else in the world is an “Overseas Chinese” citizen, the subject of China’s protection and potentially the basis for a Chinese extraterritorial claim?
Taiwan was a Japanese colony for half a century before the end of World War II. It was briefly united with China during the latter part of the long civil war between forces led by Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek and has, all pretenses aside, been apart from mainland China during the entire tenure of the Peoples Republic of China. This, seen through the long history of Chinese civilization, is not so unusual. China may maintain a Confucian Institute on the University of Panama campus, but the sage himself was born and died in the Kingdom of Lu, a vassal state to the Zhou dynasty, which held sway over the eastern part but not all of what is now mainland China. China may be one civilization – as Han chauvinists and others will strenuously argue – but throughout its history this civilization has encompassed more than one country.
Taiwan is apart from China, has been in the memory of everybody living today. As one of those small countries that without a lot of material resources lives well by its wits, it’s an example of what the best of Panamanian thinking finds attractive.
Let neither Panama nor the United States nor China go to war over Taiwan. But let Panama repair the hurt and get closer to that little democracy and its cat lady president. While, of course, going through all the difficult steps that a country like Panama has to take to maintain a secure, sovereign, independent and neutral position in the world.
Rita Moreno on the red carpet at the 50th anniversary of West Side Story. Wikimedia photo by John Ferguson.
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