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Controversy cuts attendance at Panama Canal conference

September 7, 1997
Web posted at: 2:47 p.m. EDT (1847 GMT)

PANAMA CITY (CNN) -- Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui arrived in Panama Sunday, where a four-day conference to map out the future of the Panama Canal was just beginning. Taiwan's presence at the conference may keep Panama from establishing stronger ties with some of its international customers as it prepares to take control of the canal.

At the stroke of noon on December 31, 1999, the United States will surrender the Panama Canal, one of the world's most important waterways. Panama will inherit the waterway -- and the strategic and political challenges that go with it.

Panama to handle size, safety of canal


The United States, which has administered the Panama Canal for 83 years, will hand over control of the waterway to Panama at the end of 1999. Some are concerned that the tiny Central American nation could have trouble maintaining and defending the canal, while Panamanian officials worry that countries like China will boycott the canal to push their own political agendas.

The Central American country is under pressure to expand capacity for the waterway. Fernando Manfredo, the first Panamanian to become deputy administrator of the Panama Canal Commission, said work on the expansion needs to begin soon.

"In 1993, we made an estimate of canal use for the year 2000. We reached those figures in 1996," he said.

Panama must also convince its customers that the canal will remain safe without the presence of the thousands of U.S. soldiers who guarded it. The U.S. military will leave Panama when the U.S. government relinquishes the canal in 1999.

Manfredo says the vulnerability of the canal has always been exaggerated. He is more concerned, he said, about political problems, such as a possible boycott of the canal by China if Panama continues its friendly relations with rival Taiwan.

Boycott cuts high-level turnout

The conference was planned as a major international meeting where Panama would show world leaders and the United Nations that it is ready to run the Panama Canal in the next century.

But China, outraged that Lee was scheduled to attend the conference, demanded that Panama rescind Taiwan's invitation. When Panama refused, China announced it would boycott the event.

Panama is one of the few countries in the world with diplomatic ties to the Taiwanese government instead of to Beijing. The People's Republic of China strongly objects to any show of independence by Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province.

The United Nations followed suit in the boycott, saying it would be imprudent for its delegates to attend a conference where Taiwan was present.

As a result, the conference has become a meeting of mostly low-level government officials and shipping representatives.

Taiwan maintains right to attend

China is one of the canal's biggest customers. But Taiwan maintains it also has a right to be at the conference. "Our country is a country. It is not a colony. It has formal diplomatic ties with many countries. It has international roles to play," said presidential adviser Tien Hung-mao.

"So, to the extent that we are required, I think the government is required as a democracy to participate in international activities."

Panama declined to give in to China's demands. Manfredo said it was important that the canal remain a politically neutral zone.

Meanwhile, Panama also benefits from its relationship with Taiwan. Taiwan, an important investor in Panama, paid $800,000 to help fund the conference, organizers said.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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