- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2001

Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday he is not concerned about China's influence in the Panama Canal but warned Colombia's president to be cautious about inviting Chinese agricultural assistance.

"The Chinese presence in the Panama Canal has been written about and spoken of, but it isn't … I have not found that the so-called 'presence' in the form of shipping companies and the like have created any danger to the Panamanian people, the Panamanian government, or to the canal itself," Mr. Powell said at a press conference.

Mr. Powell added: "Our interests are served… . I don't see anything that should cause me any great distress."

The secretary of state was asked about a recent visit to Beijing by a senior Colombian government official who was seeking Chinese assistance in agricultural development aid for northeastern Colombia. Mr. Powell said he was unaware of the request.

Mr. Powell offered this advice to Colombia's president: "President [Andres] Pastrana is free to seek advice where he finds it most useful. One always has to be careful that you're getting the advice you sought and nothing more, and I'm sure he will be careful."

He spoke to reporters following a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

Concerns about Chinese influence in Panama were raised by the leasing of two ports near both ends of the canal by a Hong Kong-based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa in 1997.

The company's chairman, Li Ka-Shing, has close ties to the Chinese government, according to declassified U.S. military intelligence documents.

A 1998 Army intelligence report stated that Mr. Li "is planning to take control of Panama Canal operations when the U.S. transfers it to Panama in Dec. 99."

"Li is directly connected to Beijing and is willing to use his business influence to further the aims of the Chinese government," one of the documents stated.

A U.S. Southern Command intelligence report from October 1999 called the leases of Balboa and Cristobal by Panama Ports Co., a subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa, "a potential threat."

The Southern Command report stated that China is not likely to sabotage the Panama Canal but could use the port facilities as "a conduit for illegal shipments of technology" to China, or to "facilitate the movement of arms and other prohibited items into the Americas."

Pentagon officials have said China could use its access to the ports to disrupt shipping if a conflict erupts between China and Taiwan, and the U.S. military was called in to defend the island.

Organized Chinese crime groups are also using Panama as a base for the smuggling of narcotics, illegal aliens and arms, according to a U.S. Customs Service intelligence report.

China also has increased military ties with Cuba and has begun developing closer relations with the leftist government of Venezuela.

The issue of Chinese influence in Panama was raised in an August 1999 letter from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to the Pentagon. Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican, stated that it appears that "we have given away the farm without a shot being fired."

The Pentagon dismissed his concerns about China's access to the strategic waterway and said there are no U.S. national security interests threatened by Hutchison Whampoa's ports. Other ports in Panama are operated by U.S. and Taiwanese companies.

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