Monday, November 7, 2005

PANAMA CITY — President Bush said yesterday that every country must have “equal access” to the Panama Canal and called for expansion and modernization of the waterway.

The president, making his last stop on a five-day Latin America tour, endorsed a modernization project estimated to cost $10 billion, one that Panamanian leaders have been mulling since they took over full control of the canal from the United States on Dec. 31, 1999.

A Chinese company, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., has contracts to run ports at either end of the canal, which some think may give China excessive control over the waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But a Pentagon intelligence report in January 2000 said Chinese influence over the Panama Canal presents no threat to U.S. national security.

Asked how the White House would view China’s participation in widening or expanding the shipping lanes, Mr. Bush said, “It’s in the interest of those who run the canal not only to modernize it, but to make sure it’s used properly.”

Mr. Bush, making a stop at the Miraflores Locks nearly 99 years after Theodore Roosevelt came in 1906 to see the canal construction, said Panamanian authorities “recognize that it is to be used by everybody, that the canal is international, that there ought to be equal access.”

Since the United States completed construction of the canal in 1914, about 880,000 ships have used the locks to traverse the isthmus between South and Central America. More than 14,000 ships passed through the canal last year, but the waterway is too narrow for hundreds of the world’s largest ships — especially the new Chinese ships that carry goods to the United States.

Panama has studied ways to improve and modernize the waterway, including the possibility of adding a third shipping channel. Because the United States is the top user of the canal — with China second — “it’s in our nation’s interest that this canal be modernized,” Mr. Bush said at a press conference with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos.

Later in the day, Mr. Torrijos took Mr. Bush on a tour of the Miraflores Locks, the first leading into the canal from the Pacific Ocean and pronounced “a marvel” by the U.S. president.

Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, also visited the Corozal American Cemetery to lay a wreath in honor of the nearly 5,200 canal workers and U.S. service members buried there.

Two days after leaving the Summit of the Americas in Argentina — where discussions on establishing a free-trade zone stretching from Alaska to Argentina failed to win unanimous support for a pact — Mr. Bush said the United States and Panama were close to completing a bilateral free-trade agreement.

“We are in the midst of negotiating a free-trade agreement with Panama,” Mr. Bush said. “And I told the president this free-trade agreement is important for America, as he told me it’s important for Panama. And we’re close to coming to an agreement.”

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