Nicaragua canal revisited

As a testament to the resiliency of the world’s strongest economy, the much-maligned and often-doubted Nicaragua canal is moving forward. Ground was broken on the canal last week, according to a number of international reports, but whether the project will result in a completed Atlantic-Pacific canal, much less by the projected completion date of 2020 — an almost-laughable target — remains to be seen. However, the ennui with which this development has been greeted by political and shipping interests is remarkable in itself.

First, there is no question that the project is being funded in its entirety by the Chinese government, Nicaraguan and Chinese denials — both official and corporate — notwithstanding. Wang Jing, the principal behind the HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co Ltd., and who represented the company at the groundbreaking, is a notorious front-man for the Chinese government, and the bald-faced denials of Chinese government involvement by Nicaragua’s Maoist government, supported since its insurgency by that government, are notable only in their risibility.

No doubt an alternate to the ancient and inefficient Panama Canal, even with its nearly completed upgrades, would be welcomed by the shipping community. Yawning reactions to the news of the groundbreaking by shipping commentators may relate more to the unlikelihood of the project’s completion than to its political and economic potential. But in terms of our national security, the implications could be significant and it’s worthwhile to remember that the Japanese considered trying to shut down the Panama Canal during World War II. A successful shut-down of the Panama Canal and free access for our potential enemies to an alternate passage could adversely affect our ship-based ability to project force.

More immediately, if completed the canal will certainly plump the Chinese government’s already-bulging coffers and will constitute a quantum leap for Chinese hegemony in the Americas. This is not fear-mongering: while the world sleeps, the Chinese government is infusing itself throughout Africa, especially in the mineral-rich countries of East Africa. Chinese support of leftist governments in the Americas — including last week’s announcement that China may bail out Venezuela — continues unabated.

Just what could be done about the Nicaragua Canal, if indeed doing something were desirable, is hard to say. The United States is unlikely to mount another Contra war against Ortega, and nothing else is likely to have much effect. Ironically, the greatest obstacles to the venture may be the same natural obstacles that deLesseps, the French and the early American canal-builders encountered. But American engineers proved in 1914 that these obstacles can be overcome. So if the Chinese succeed, we must take what solace we can from the fact that the unceasing flow of American dollars into Chinese pockets made it possible.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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