DATE=11/24/1999 TYPE=U-S OPINION ROUNDUP TITLE=IS PANAMA CANAL FALLING UNDER CHINESE CONTROL? NUMBER=6-11568 BYLINE=ANDREW GUTHRIE DATELINE=WASHINGTON EDITOR=ASSIGNMENTS TELEPHONE=619-3335 CONTENT= INTRO: On the 31st of December, at 12 noon local time, the Panama Canal, one of the engineering wonders of the 20th Century, will be turned over to Panamanian control. The huge waterway, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the narrow isthmus of Panama, was built by the United States and has been operated by Washington since its completion in 1914. The canal reduces the shipping distance between New York and San Francisco from 20-thousand-900 kilometers to just 83- hundred and 70. Panama and the United States signed a pair of treaties in 1977 replacing the original treaty under which the canal was built. The new pact gave Panama control over the Canal Zone in 1979, and set the turnover date of the canal itself as the end of this year. Then as now, there is significant, but minority, opposition in this country to giving Panama control of such a strategic waterway. And in the past few weeks, a new controversy has arisen. Republican Senate leader Trent Lott and others are charging that the Chinese government will be gaining undue control over the canal at the turnover. The charge results from Panama's awarding a contract for operating the canal's two main ports to a Hong Kong-based company that operates worldwide. Many U-S newspapers have been skeptical of the supposed threat, as we hear now from the Tulsa (Oklahoma) World: VOICE: Sound bites and scare words drive much of today's politics. But here's one that's going to be tough to sell: Hutchison Whampoa Limited. It's the latest attempt by some politicians to torpedo [Editors: in this case "defeat"] the long-standing Panama Canal Treaty. The controversial treaty was signed by Jimmy Carter and ratified in the U-S Senate with the support of senators . who bucked jingoist [Editors: extreme nationalistic] sentiment for the United States to keep the canal. . Now, two decades later . the anti-treaty forces are once again alarmed. The problem, as seen by some, is that Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa will operate two ports at either end of the canal. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott fears that "U-S naval ships will be at the mercy" of a puppet of Beijing. Even more radical Republicans claim that China has made the deal with Panama in order to expand its influence into the Americas. [Senator] Lott ought to know better. Hutchison Whampoa is a publicly traded corporation with 19 ports around the world. Its reputation in the business is flawless. The company will have no control over any ship traveling through the canal; the Panamanian government retains that control and is bound by stipulations of the [new] agreement. . Stirring up the canal issue is pure mischief on the part of [Senator] Lott and Co. TEXT: Still in the Southwestern United States, Salt Lake City's [Utah] Deseret [EDITORS: DEZ uh ray] News also considers the fears ill founded, noting: VOICE: The fight over whether to keep the canal under U-S ownership was waged and decided in the 1970s. Although many conservatives opposed the transfer at that time, subsequent Republican presidents and congresses, including President Ronald Reagan, made no attempts to rescind it. To bring it up again now, on the eve of the transfer, does little good. It demonstrates a supreme lack of understanding. Critics, including former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, say [Mr. Li Ka-Shing, the Hong Kong businessman who owns Hutchison Whampoa's parent company] now has no choice but to do the Chinese government's bidding, and that Hutchison Port Holdings easily could become a base for collecting important intelligence. That is difficult to believe. The company will have no control or authority over the ships that travel the canal. . Yes, some legitimate questions have been raised about irregularities in the bidding process that gave Hutchison its contract two years ago. These ought to be carefully investigated. But Congress should quit worrying about the Red Army invading the canal. TEXT: Taking the other side in this dispute is retired Navy Admiral Thomas Moorer, a former chairman of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff. At a Washington news conference, widely reported in the U-S press, Admiral Moorer said China plans to seize control of the canal through the Hong Kong company. He is worried that China could fire mobile, nuclear missiles at the United States from a base in Panama, made possible by the Hong Kong company's operation. VOICE: . consequently, we have a situation where the Chinese are in a position today to secret these kinds of missiles into Panama and use Panama as a launching point for missiles to attack the United States . And no one seems to get exercised over that and the media doesn't even mention that. TEXT: Speaking at a news conference sponsored by the John Birch Society, a far right group that has long opposed the new canal treaties, Admiral Moorer went on to say that the Chinese threat "is more difficult to handle" than the Cuban missile crisis. The admiral also disputed the administration's contention that the United States retains the right after surrendering the canal to use force to ensure free passage in the event of a takeover by hostile forces. TEXT: But Admiral Moorer's theory of China setting up a hostile camp in Panama after the canal turn-over is disputed by the Atlanta (Georgia) Constitution: VOICE: As the day approaches that the United States will relinquish control of the Panama Canal .. Ultraconservatives in this country are conjuring up the direst of outcomes once Panamanians take over the canal's operations. Very soon, they say, Communist China will be in a position to seize this strategic waterway. Among the purveyors of this far-out speculation are retired Admiral Thomas Moorer, a right-wing doomsayer of longstanding; Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage (Republican-Idaho), the militia movement's favorite congresswoman; and the John Birch Society, a Cold War relic notorious for its anti-Red paranoia. . Even if Hutchison Whampoa were a Peoples Liberation Army front, a conjecture that U-S intelligence has investigated and rejected, it is in no position to regulate traffic through the canal. What the company does is load and unload cargo containers, and according to others in the industry it does that quite well. . The country's [Editors: Panama's] business talent has studied how the Philippines has turned former U-S bases there into lively economic zones, and they intend to do likewise. In effect, Panama will replace a U-S government- operated utility with a privatized authority that runs the canal like a business. You'd think ultraconservatives would approve. TEXT: With those views from The Atlanta Constitution, we conclude this sampling of comment on the possibility of Chinese influence on the future operation of the Panama Canal. NEB/ANG/JP 24-Nov-1999 17:21 PM EDT (24-Nov-1999 2221 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .
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