- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

Riordan Roett, director of the Western Hemisphere Program at Johns Hopkins University, spoke with Washington Times reporter Heather J. Carlson about the state of Panama-U.S. relations and the significance of the Panama Canal. Mr. Roett specializes in Central America and emerging markets.

Question: How important is the Panama Canal to the United States today?

Answer: Less so than it was, of course, 40 or 50 years ago. But still, both in terms of security interests and in terms of its national commerce and our allies, it remains an important asset with the United States.

Q: What sort of a strategic role does the canal have?

A: Given globalization and the danger of conflict in areas of the world we really hadn’t considered even 10 years ago, I think the military will always want to keep open their options to move forces quickly from one ocean to the other, and the canal, obviously, from that point of view, is most important.

Secondly, in terms of regional security, while we no longer occupy the canal zone, the Southern Command for the United States in Florida still, I believe, views Central America [and] the canal as an important strategic concern for the United States — negatively and positively. Negatively, in the sense that they are treaty-bound to protect and keep that canal functioning. Positively, in that it’s an important asset to our Latin American neighbors that need that canal for their exports.

Q: Some conservative groups in the United States have raised concerns that China may have too strong of an influence over the canal. Do you think that is a legitimate concern?

A: Not really. I think that, given globalization and internationalization of world trade and commerce, the Chinese are playing a very important role in the region.

They are providing the positive trade balances for many of the countries in South America — Brazil, Argentina and Chile. They are making major investments in iron-ore projects in Brazil.

And I think, given the changing relationship, diplomatic and geopolitical, between Beijing and Washington — the fourth generation is now in power in Beijing — that U.S.-Chinese relations are probably better now than they have been at any time since 1949. It certainly is not in the interest of China to pose a threat, commercial or otherwise, to the United States.

Q: How vital is an expansion of the canal to Panama’s economic future?

A: It’s a tricky question. Clearly, the fees that the Panamanians would be able to charge for an enlarged canal would be very, very helpful. But before they can do that, they’ve got to restructure the canal, and that is going to be a billions-and-billions-of-dollars responsibility.

So, the question has to be raised of where the money is going to come from, and at what cost, and who is going to administer both the finances, as well as the reconstruction of the canal.

Q: Right now, the United States is negotiating a free-trade agreement with Panama. How important is Panama as a trading partner to the United States?

A: Not very. It’s very much like the Central American Free Trade Agreement that the administration has negotiated. It’s much more symbolic than it is substantive.

But having said that, those symbols are very important, both to the countries involved, as well as to the United States, in terms of our presence in the hemisphere.

Q: With the new government in Panama, any sense of how that may affect U.S. relations with the country?

A: I think it’s wait and see, which is an appropriate position for the United States. There has been no indication that the government would want a position that is not friendly or amicable to the United States.

But as we have had so much experience in Latin America, you don’t know what you get until you see it. I think the probability is a good, pragmatic working relationship that would be necessary to move ahead with the canal project.

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