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The China-Sandinista Canal
Is the Monroe Doctrine Dead?

A milestone was passed in one of China’s biggest infrastructure projects to date—the $50 billion Nicaraguan canal—with a British consultancy delivering its impact study ahead of a vote by Nicaraguan officials in July. A feasibility study commissioned from McKinsey by the Chinese firm planning the project has not yet been released. The canal project ceremonially broke ground late last year, with excavation work supposed to begin in earnest in the fall of this year. The American Journal of Transportation has more:

The 172-mile (278 km), Chinese-backed project, which the Nicaraguan government says will be operational by 2020, is one of the world’s most ambitious infrastructure schemes, but has been met with widespread incredulity.

After a chiefly symbolic groundbreaking ceremony in Managua last year, from which members of the international media were barred, Wang Jing said the environmental study would be finished by the first quarter of 2015, with excavation work beginning by the end of September.

Nicaraguan presidential spokesman Paul Oquist said in December that feasibility studies, including a McKinsey report that experts say will define interest in financing the canal, would also be ready by April.

In January, the U.S. embassy in Managua said it was concerned by a lack of information surrounding the canal, calling for all relevant documents pertaining to the project to be made public.

One of the reasons people have been surprised by the apparent progress of this Chinese project is the U.S.’s history of opposing any foreign-controlled alternatives to the Panama Canal. After intervening in Nicaragua in the first half of the 1910s, Washington signed the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty in 1916, giving the U.S. the sole right to build a canal in the country in perpetuity.

America is not invoking that treaty now to oppose China’s plan. That may be because strategists have calculated that a Chinese canal doesn’t really hurt American interests—in the event of a conflict, superior American naval power would almost immediately make it the case that China didn’t control the second Atlantic-Pacific passage any longer, and in peace time it’s just another sea lane supporting global trade.

But this raises a question: is the Monroe Doctrine dead? Probably not in an election year. Even if the strategic consequences are moot, the American public may not see it that way. If the murky project proceeds as planned, expect both Democrats and Republicans to sound off on the prospect of a China-Sandinista canal in the Western hemisphere.

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  • JR

    Nicaragua canal is the international version of the 2nd Ave Subway Line in Manhattan. Everybody agreed that it is a good idea more than a century ago. And yet, nothing has happened or will likely happen for another hundred years.

  • FriendlyGoat

    The calculations are different from 1916. Because, in part, of what JR has said below, we need to put our counter-efforts against China into other places and issues.

  • Angel Martin

    the wartime priority for the canal has always been to defend from attack or sabotage.

    if China wants to build and pay for a second route i am all for it.

    • JR

      I’m with you. So far it seems like it is mostly a cover story for Chinese interests to buy up under-developed land in west Nicaragua and build hotels, golf courses etc etc etc… I see nothing wrong with any of it.

  • Dan Greene

    >>”After intervening in Nicaragua in the first half of the 1910s, Washington signed the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty in 1916, giving the U.S. the sole right to build a canal in the country in perpetuity. America is not invoking that treaty now to oppose China’s plan. That may be because strategists have calculated that a Chinese canal doesn’t really hurt American interests…”

    Or maybe it’s because of this:

    “The Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was abrogated in 1970.”

    >>”Is the Monroe Doctrine dead?”

    Well, officially it is. John Kerry said so at the last OAS meeting, mainly because we don’t want anyone else, e.g., Russia and China to exercise any Monroe-Doctrine-like assertions of strategic authority. In practice though, this president has tacitly endorsed the ouster of a rather uncooperative Honduran president. He is now working to eliminate an uncooperative and weakened Venezuelan government. We have delegated constabulary duties in Haiti to the UN, and are trying to design a new relationship with Cuba to pre-empt any Russian or Chinese move there in the future.

    So no, the Monroe Doctrine is not dead, but its implementation must be done in subtler and more nuanced ways than in the past, which brings us to the Nicaragua Canal issue. There are two points to make here:

    1. The assumption that the Nicaragua Canal won’t be built any time soon if ever is a foolish one.

    2. If it is built, it WILL have a significant negative strategic impact on us.

    Of course, we can’t say whether China is just trying to jerk our chain and whether they will complete the canal given all their competing projects and strategic goals, but they have the capability. Look at their ability to undertake a large construction project with the artificial islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam pioneered island construction and enlargement in the Spratlys years ago. China came late to the game, and, as a result, China occupies the features that no one else wanted in the Spratlys. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan all have at least one natural island and all of them built airstrips years ago. China took possession of a half dozen reefs that were below sea level except some times at low tide. In the space of a few years, they had a dredger custom built that could move huge amounts of sand, and now they will soon possess the longest airstrip in the Spratlys. That’s the kind of make-it-happen approach that could get the Nicaragua Canal built and built rapidly.

    But still, why build a Nicaragua Canal? What does China actually gain from it? This article is right about one thing: A canal will have no viable military strategic use over the medium term at least. But that’s not the full story. If China can build a canal that allows the transit of the the current and next generations of huge container ships which cannot fit through the Panama Canal, then what we could see at some point is a massive diversion of shipping to the Nicaragua Canal. One can envision a scenario in which our “client” Panama is left economically devastated by its inability to compete. Meanwhile, China’s “client,” Nicaragua, whom we were trying to overthrow a few decades ago and who we also view as “uncooperative,” is sitting pretty while China looks like a world-beater. And what might China be able to then offer to poverty-stricken Caribbean islands like Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba to allow greater entree? Is it worth it to China to really commit the resources and energy to realize this vision? We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s likely that the reason China has made this move is to show us that if we think we can have the full run of the waters adjacent to China and an array of military bases around the Chinese periphery while enjoying unchallenged strategic supremacy in the Western Hemisphere, then we had better think again.

  • Fat_Man

    The Monroe doctrine died when Eisenhower and Kennedy decided to allow the Soviet Union to create a military base in US waters. Call me when some US President has the stones to do something about the Castro brothers.

    • Dan Greene

      What do you want the US President “with stones” to do about Cuba?

  • Brett Champion

    Considering the Monroe Doctrine dealt with the colonization of American territory or the interfering in the domestic affairs of American states, then no, Chinese construction of a canal through Nicaragua would not mean that the Monroe Doctrine is dead.

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