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