Right of Passage
Monroe be Damned

June 25th, 2013

[private]Almost 200 years ago US President James Monroe warned the nations of Europe that further efforts to colonize or interfere with the newly independent nations of the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression, requiring US intervention. This policy would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe also said the US would not interfere with existing European colonies in the hemisphere, nor would it meddle in the internal affairs of European countries.

v11-7-our islands

The US and European powers competed for rights to build a trans-oceanic canal across Nicaragua in the 19th century. Now it looks like China will build it in the 21st.

At the time, the US had neither a credible army nor a strong navy. So the doctrine was largely disregarded internationally. However, the US did have the backing of the British Navy, which then “ruled the waves,” in keeping other European powers from encroaching on the Americas and keeping the markets of the newly independent nations there open to British commerce.

This uneasy alliance between the US and Britain was formalized in the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The treaty was negotiated in response to proposals to build a canal across Central America – Nicaragua was thought to be the most likely route – that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This would obviously have a major impact on the two maritime and commercial powers. In the treaty, the two sides agreed neither would seek to monopolize such a canal. In the following years the US cited this treaty to pressure Britain to abandon its possessions and protectorates surrounding the approaches to the proposed canal, including the Bay Islands.

Now, more than 160 years after that infamous treaty, the idea of a canal across Nicaragua is once again very much alive. The US had better wake up to the fact that there are other players in the arena now, and the new player in not known to deal a fair hand.

Within 15 years, the Chinese will be calling the shots on the Nicaragua Canal. Such a canal is no longer just a proposal. According to the Nicaraguan press, it is a done deal. A China-based consortium has been awarded a 100-year concession to build an alternative to the Panama Canal, and construction will soon begin. The president of Nicaragua’s National Assembly, Rene Nuñez, announced the $40 billion project June 6, ironically the anniversary of the US-British invasion of Normandy.

The Nicaragua Canal will able to handle ships twice as large as the Panama Canal, even after the latter is widened at a cost of US$5.2 billion, according to press reports.

This deal looks set to have profound geopolitical ramifications. It will reinforce Beijing’s growing influence on global trade and weaken US dominance over the key shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

During a 1998 hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, many questions were asked about the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Treaties, which returned control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999. (The US and built the canal, and controled and operated it until 1999, pursuant to a 1903 treaty with Panama, concluded immediately after Panama separated from Colombia with US assistance.)

In the hearing, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina raised what he said was “the important question” of whether, as a result of returning the canal to Panamanian control, the US had allowed “Communist China” to “gain a foothold in the Panama Canal through one of its front companies.” In fact, Hutchison Whampoa, based in Hong Kong (which is an autonomous part of the People’s Republic of China, although it is not “communist”), currently operates the Panama Canal’s container-shipping ports under a 25-year lease awarded in 1999.

The good Senator is gone now, and the question is now irrelevant, because in a few years China will have its own canal, and the US will have to pay China for the right of passage.[/private]

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