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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