Byline: GREGORY PIATT
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- In recent years, China has forged broad political, economic and military ties with countries in Latin America.
This has caught the attention of U.S. officials and has caused some analysts and commentators to sound an alarm that China is infiltrating the United States' sphere of influence.
The concern about China in Latin America began shortly before the United States turned over control of the Panama Canal to Panama in December 1999. A Hong Kong company said to have ties to China's Communist government and army acquired a contract for running the port authority on both the Atlantic and Pacific port entrances to the canal.
"The acquisition of a 50-year lease [on the canal] enabled China to gain enormous political and trade involvement in the region," Albert Santoli, president of Asia America Initiative, said during testimony at last month's meeting of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The commission is a panel formed by U.S. Senate and House leaders.
"The control of the loading and offloading of ships gives China the ability to bring weapons and countless illegal aliens into the hemisphere, including possible terrorists, [which] could prepare new terrorist cells to cross into the United States through our porous southern border."
Controlling ship loading and offloading also could allow the transfer of weapons to guerrilla groups, many of which have ties to drug trafficking in the region without the scrutiny of U.S. customs or intelligence agents, Santoli said.
With fear that a terrorist group could attack the Panama Canal, the U.S. Southern Command's naval component, headquartered at Mayport Naval Station, held a land, sea and air exercise to safeguard the waterway from attack.
The exercise, called Panamax 2005, included 15 nations, mainly from Central and South America, which consider any stop of trade through the canal a serious threat to their economies.
But China's growing trade makes the Panama Canal a vital waterway for ships carrying goods to and from the Far East. And that can't be ignored, said Gen. Bantz Craddock, commander of the Southern Command.
"[China's] growing dependence on the global economy and the necessity of protecting access to food, energy, raw materials and export markets has forced a shift in their military strategy," Craddock told Congress this year. "[China's] 2004 Defense Strategy White Paper departs from the past and promotes a power-projection military capable of securing strategic shipping lanes and protecting its growing economic interests abroad."
So does that mean China will participate in next year's Panamax exercise? Probably not, said Rear Adm. Vinson Smith, commander of Southern Command's naval component.
"This is not China's back yard, it's ours," Smith said. "But China might be involved in the future."
But China's growing economic interests, presence and influence in the region are not a threat, Craddock said.
"They are clearly components of a condition we should recognize and consider carefully as we form our own objectives, policies and engagement in the region," he said.
Testifying before Congress in April, Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said China's interest in Latin America is driven by several factors. …