PC Answers On Panama Canal
Insight on the News, Nov 22, 1999 by J. Michael Waller

Administration witnesses take refuge in ignorance during Senate hearings called to investigate Insight's reporting on Red Chinese over the ports of the Panama Canal.

Four administration witnesses assured the Senate Armed Service Committee on Oct. 22 that a Chinese company controlling ports at both ends of the Panama Canal poses no security problem to the United States. Confidently and with a whiff of condescension they dismissed concerns that Hutchison Whampoa, the Hong Kong-based conglomerate whose chief executive officer is a prominent cog in the economic machinery of Communist China, could be used to the detriment of U.S. interests in the waterway.

Then, toward the end of the four-hour hearing, New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith, an independent, asked them the killer question: "Do you believe the People's Republic of China uses commercial enterprises to advance their military interests?"

"I don't know" confessed Assistant Secretary of Defense Brian E. Sheridan.

"I don't know," echoed Alberto Aleman Zubieta, the Panamanian administrator of the Panama Canal Commission, whom President Clinton tapped to run the waterway until 2005.

"I don't know enough about it," admitted Joseph W. Cornelison, the U.S. deputy administrator of the commission.

"I have no basis for knowing that," replied Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Lino Gutierrez.

Never mind that all had just testified unequivocally that suspicions were groundless that Hutchison Whampoa was being used by the People's Republic of China, or PRC. Only Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, the Marine commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, answered affirmatively. And even he equivocated with a political: "I think so."

It was the most telling moment of the hearing. All the carefully worded testimony of these political appointees crumbled around them. On the Monday after this Friday hearing on Chinese operations in Panama, former CIA director James Woolsey appeared before the House International Relations Committee, and was sworn; he then compared Clinton China policy to the French and British policy toward Hitler at Munich.

What is going on here is recognized from Capitol Hill to the White House as very serious. It began when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi read an Insight story about mainland Chinese interests filling the vacuum being left by departing U.S. forces in Panama ("China's Beachhead at Panama Canal," Aug. 16) and forwarded the article to Defense Secretary William Cohen, voicing his misgivings and asking Cohen to address the issues raised. "I didn't hear from him for a month" Lott said, "so that's when I did ask that this committee have a hearing so that we could get a variety of people to participate and to address the concerns."

But the Clinton administration pooh-poohed Lott's unease from the start, first in a set of coordinated news briefings from the White House, State Department and Pentagon and again just before the Senate hearing when White House Spokesman Joe Lockhart belittled the concerns as "silly"

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the only Democrat to attend the hearing, denounced some of the worries voiced by Lott and others as "so factually wrong and so inflammatory that they need to be confronted" Even so, he conceded, "I would be very concerned if our ships could be denied passage through the canal by an arm of the PLA [People's Liberation Army]. I'd be very concerned about that."

So is the Senate getting all the facts? Even though the hearing was called to focus on the Red Chinese company contracted to run the Panama Canal, it failed to call a single expert on the Chinese military, Chinese geostrategy or anything related to China. That may explain why, following the public hearing, senators and staff retreated to the sealed quarters of the Select Committee on Intelligence hearing room for a classified session closed to the public. At first, according to an Armed Services Committee notice, staffers holding low-level secret clearances could attend. But suddenly it was decided that only staff with top-secret clearance for compartmented, code-word intelligence would be admitted. This move meant that senators' savvy personal aides were barred, as only a few staffers of the full committee are allowed such clearance. "It meant we could not be there to help our senators get the appropriate questions in" complained an aide.

Bear in mind that Assistant Defense Secretary Sheridan said he wouldn't answer questions about whether Beijing would receive significant intelligence capabilities in Panama except in the closed session.

The successful attempt to limit Senate access to the facts follows the administration's success earlier this year in suppressing on national-security grounds most of the Cox report, the June findings of a bipartisan House panel led by Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican, to investigate the transfer of U.S. defense technology to Beijing.

Was there a need to hide behind the national-security cloak to answer the question about whether Beijing uses private companies to advance its military interests? "Perhaps the senators should have read the Cox report" a Capitol Hill staffer told Insight after the hearing. Chapter 1 of the report's unanimous findings is devoted to how Beijing uses Chinese companies to advance its military interests.

"The political, governmental, military, and commercial activities of the People's Republic of China" the Cox report begins, "are controlled by three directly overlapping bureaucracies: the Communist Party, the State, and the People's Liberation Army. The PRC Constitution asserts supremacy of the Communist Party over all other government, military and civilian entities.... This policy ... holds that military development is the object of general economic modernization, and that the CCP's [Chinese Communist Party's] main arm for the civilian economy is to support the building of modern military weapons and to support the aims of the PLA."

"It is essential to look at the Chinese role in Panama as part of a larger strategic picture," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, told the Senate committee. "During the past two years, I have traveled around the Pacific rim recognizing what is certainly a long-term strategy on Beijing's part to gain control of the world's key strategic choke points. A `vacuum-filling' pattern seems to be evident: Wherever in the Pacific the U.S. withdraws or is negligent militarily, politically or economically, the Chinese Communists move in.

"This includes the Indian Ocean, where Communist Chinese bases have been established in Burma; the South China Sea, with the PRC's power play in the Paracel Islands; the Straits of Malacca, where Chinese military ships and installations can be found in the Spratly Islands; the central Pacific, with a major satellite tracking station on Tarawa; and the coast of Hawaii, where Beijing is operating a major ocean-mining tract to which nobody is paying attention.

"In addition to a growing commercial prowess controlling ports in Vancouver, Canada, and in the Caribbean, China recently completed military/ intelligence agreements with Cuba to build communications-intelligence facilities. The Cuban facility enables the monitoring operations of the U.S. Atlantic fleet and elements of the U.S. Pacific fleet, as well as domestic commercial and military communications throughout the Americas. In addition, the Chinese are stepping up their military-to-military relationships with South American nations."

Former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger testified that when he served under President Reagan, Beijing primarily was interested in local defense against the Soviet Union, with which it shared an 1,800-mile border. But in recent years, he said, "the fact of the matter is that if they are aggressively now trying to take an aggressive and influential and offensive role, they would certainly be interested in naval choke points and naval facilities throughout the world. And there is no more strategic one, there is no bigger choke point, so to speak, than the Panama Canal. So, it would not be illogical for them to try to add to their capabilities in that region, and that's what I worry about their having done."

One of Panama's greatest vulnerabilities is corruption, what Wilhelm called "the single word that best describes the threats that confront the region. I think Panama is particularly vulnerable because the canal is there." Rohrabacher testified that American companies bidding for the ports "were outmaneuvered at the last minute by under-the-table payoffs" to Panamanian officials. But administration witnesses refused to acknowledge any corruption in the bidding process that forced a U.S. company to withdraw its bid and allowed Hutchison Whampoa to take control of the strategic ports.