As the US turns over ceremonial control of the Panama Canal today, China's presence in Panama is the focus of a noisy minority in Washington worried about hostile foreign influences so close to home.
But the biggest threat over the next decade to one of the world's essential commercial links could be something much more mundane: a worsening scarcity of water.
From the "red" Chinese to water shortages, from illegal drugs and Colombian guerrillas to terrorist attacks and Panama's corruption, the list of threats to the man-made waterway has grown as the "official" Dec. 31 turnover date approaches. Panamanian authorities have increased security at key points along the canal. And some analysts note that with the US gone, the canal may be a less appealing target.
While almost no one with close knowledge of the canal is worried about its day-to-day operation in Panamanian hands, many observers are hoping the anxieties will translate into a healthy vigilance on the canal's actual and future security threats.
"Panamanians are like the child leaving Papa's home for the first time, a little nervous about how it will be," says Robert Eisenmann, a Panamanian banker and longtime promoter of full Panamanian sovereignty over the canal.
On the issue of Chinese influence, for example, some say the potential threat that has to be watched is the Panamanian government's susceptibility to corruptive influences. "The unfortunate aspect is that behind this hysteria ... are some legitimate concerns," says one well-placed source in Panama who asked not to be named.
The China worries took root after the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa shipping and port development company outbid the US-based Bechtel Corporation for operation of ports at either end of the canal. Last week US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California called on the Panamanian government to revoke the contract. But as Panama Canal Commission authorities and US officials as high as President Clinton have pointed out, the canal is operated independently of its various ports.
There are also ports operated by US and Taiwanese companies on the canal.
"This [port] is a commercial activity by a clearly commercial international company," says Jaime Bocanegra, director of the Canal Commission's transition management office. Canal and US officials also point out that China is the third heaviest user of the canal after the US and Japan, so they say it is normal that its companies be involved.
China has been associated with official corruption in Panama since Samantha Smith, the intelligence director for former Panamanian president Ernesto Prez Balladares, alleged earlier this year that he ordered her to issue visas for more than 130 Chinese. The former official told a US congressional hearing last week that the visas, for which Mr. Prez Balladares was to be paid handsomely, were to get the Chinese illegally into the US. He says the allegations are all lies designed to destroy him.
Observers note that such activities are not new in Panama. For example, the Prez Balladares campaign received donations laundered through a national bank by drug traffickers.
"There's a nagging worry over whether Panama will end up forcing the same operating criteria on the canal that it has applied to running the government," says David Scott Palmer, a Latin America expert at Boston University.
What will help guarantee against that happening is Panama's strengthening democracy. The expansion of a citizen's oversight group in the management of the canal is one case in point. "I'm confident our democracy has been solidified to the point where we will manage the canal as well as or better than the US," says Mr. Eisenmann.
But that management is going to have to take up environmental challenges, like dwindling water supplies, quickly if the canal's future is to be ensured. Each ship that passes through the canal's system of locks requires a whopping 52 million gallons of irretrievable fresh water to make the trip from Atlantic to Pacific. As ship traffic and the urban population's water needs grow, water may be the canal's real red alert.
"When we started looking at all the factors we realized that unless something was done soon, some time after 2010 there wasn't going to be enough water," says Augustn Arias, with the Canal Commission.
Canal authorities got an early warning of things to come when a drought in 1998, caused by El Nio, reduced canal water levels, forcing shipping limits.
As a first step the commission and Panamanian government in August expanded the Canal's watershed area by more than a half-million acres. The new watershed will be studied for potential reservoir sites where fresh water could be stored, especially for Panama's dry season. Developing new water sources could also make the construction of a third set of canal locks feasible - which officials say is desirable if traffic restrictions are to be reduced.
Any water projects in the expanded watershed area will be developed with public participation - especially the mostly poor, subsistence-farming population, Mr. Arias says. "We want to approach this ... as an opportunity to improve people's quality of life," he says. Reservoirs could bring the area potable water and electricity unavailable now.
"If we want the Panamanian people to participate in caring for the canal and the land it depends on," Arias adds, "then we have to demonstrate how it can be of benefit."
* Height: 85 feet above sea level. Ships raised through three flights of gravity-fed freshwater locks.
* Gallons of fresh water used in one ship transit: 52 million (sufficient to meet the daily needs of a city of 100,000 people).
* Workers involved in construction: 75,000
* Cost of construction (1880-1914): $639 million
* Total ship transits since 1914: 825,000
* Average toll: $40,000
* Average daily transits: 38
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society