The Panama Canal, a vital waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, holds significant geopolitical importance, serving as a strategic hub for global trade, military operations, and regional diplomacy. The Panama Canal is a vital global trade route, facilitating the transit of goods between the East Coast of the United States and Europe to the West Coast of the United States and Asia. It accounts for 12% of global trade and contributes significantly to economic prosperity for Panama.
The canal’s strategic location at the narrowest point of the Central American isthmus allows for shorter and more efficient maritime routes, reducing transit times and costs for goods and energy resources. Historically, control of the canal has been a strategic military concern for global powers, with the United States playing a dominant role in its construction and operation. The Panama Canal Zone was transferred to Panama’s sovereignty, marking a significant geopolitical shift.
The canal’s management and maintenance require cooperation between Panama and international stakeholders, and diplomatic negotiations, agreements, and disputes related to its operation can affect regional relationships and alliances. It plays a crucial role in the transportation of energy resources, particularly liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments from the United States to Asian markets. However, the canal’s importance also brings challenges and vulnerabilities, such as natural disasters and geopolitical tensions, which could disrupt global trade routes. Ensuring the canal’s security and efficiency remains a priority for regional and global actors.
The Panama Canal, which opened in 1914, has significantly influenced geopolitics and economics. It serves as a crucial maritime route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, facilitating faster and more economical cargo transportation between North America’s industrially developed east coast and Asia. The canal also facilitates goods from South America to Europe. The idea of an interoceanic canal originated during the Spanish colonial period, with France starting work in 1881 but stopping due to engineering issues and high worker death rates.
The United States took over the project in 1904, and construction began after the Spanish-American War. The US’s sudden foreign policy rise led to the US taking control of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, eventually becoming a world power. The Panama Canal connected the growing American Pacific power with the traditional Atlantic power. The idea of the Panama Canal is closely related to the rise of the USA as a world power.
Vasco Núñez de Balbo, a Spanish maritime explorer, crossed the Isthmus of Panama and saw the Pacific Ocean. This led to the construction of the Panama Canal, which took almost four centuries to complete. The canal not only connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans but also has a significant impact on geopolitics, global trade, and the world economy. The canal’s construction is a testament to the importance of maritime navigation.
Teddy Roosevelt, a nationalist and imperialist, played a significant role in the realization of the Panama Canal. The United States built the Canal between 1904 and 1914, despite Congress questioning its necessity. In 1906, Roosevelt travelled to Panama during construction, making it the first time a sitting US president had ever left US territory. The canal was the largest public construction project in US history, and the engineering, technical, and medical challenges were overcome.
The construction of the canal was a miracle, as it was the largest public construction project in US history. The Americans used railroads to transport land, which led to landslides and mosquitoes, which affected the workforce. The US also established medical innovations to control malaria and yellow fever. The construction required more steel, concrete, and materials than the Empire State Building, and each lock required more work than the Empire State Building.
The Panama Canal allowed the USA to have a certain degree of control over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, which was crucial in both world wars. World power was matched by naval power, as the Americans knew they needed the canal to quickly move ships and navy from east to west. The economic impact of the channel was huge, enabling a drastic facilitation of trade between the two oceans.
Since 1914, the Panama Canal has been managed by Americans for their political, commercial, and military interests. Panamanians believed the canal was exclusive American property, and in 1950, Congress passed the Thompson Act, creating the Panama Canal Company. The Governor of the Canal Zone, appointed by the President, oversees operations and uses revenues to improve and maintain the canal.
The Panama Canal was a significant strategic move for the US, allowing it to control the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and facilitate trade between the two oceans. The canal was managed by the US exclusively for political, commercial, and military purposes since 1914. Panamanian nationalists sought more favourable terms than the 1903 agreement, leading to revisions in the 1950s. The 1936 agreement increased annuity paid by the US government to Panamanians, while the 1942 agreement transferred construction projects to the Panamanian government. The 1950s also saw the flying of the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone.
Despite these changes, tensions between the US and Panama remained high, with the biggest incident occurring in 1964 when soldiers killed students trying to raise the Panamanian flag on the canal. American hardliners called for force, but Johnson decided to negotiate and sent diplomats to mediate the dispute. Negotiations began, and in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed an agreement with Panamanian general Omar Torrijos, ceding control of the Canal to Panama in 1999.
The transfer agreement led to major political debates in the US, with Reagan strengthening his reputation as a staunch nationalist. The deal cost Carter dearly as American power abroad appeared to be declining, exacerbated by crises in Iran and elsewhere. However, the transfer of administration was crucial for relations with Panama and Latin America.
By the time the transfer treaty was ratified in March 1978, American benefits from the canal had almost disappeared. It was not an “act of mercy” by the Americans or overly accommodating to Latin Americans, but part of the American strategy. By the 1970s, American farmers could transport goods by rail to Seattle and ship them by sea to Asia because rail costs were much cheaper after World War II. Militarily, the canal proved to be strategically useless and completely indefensible in the event of a foreign invasion.
Truman tried to hand Truman over to the UN, but the only reason for political opposition to Carter’s treaties was that he was a symbol of American national pride, especially after the American debacle in Vietnam. The Panama Canal became the property of the State of Panama on December 31, 1999, and the political consequences of the transfer of administration were immediately felt. Since then, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has been fully owned by the Republic of Panama, managing and maintaining the waterway’s resources and safety as an independent entity of the national government.
Panamanians manage the Panama Canal efficiently and cost-effectively, with few reported cases of corruption. The canal brings money in an efficient way, creating thousands of jobs and developing an entire transportation services industry. 60% of all ships in the world sail under the Panamanian flag. The canal has a growing residential sector in the former canal zone, and a large part around the canal is untouched rainforest, becoming a centre for ecotourism. Cruise ships are now arriving in Panama City.
Annual traffic increased from about 1,000 vessels in 1914 to 14,702 vessels in 2008, and by 2012, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal. The American Society of Civil Engineers listed the Panama Canal as one of the seven in the modern world. In 2007, work began on the expansion of the canal, which was completed in June 2016, enabling the passage of larger-capacity ships. After the expansion in 2016, the waterway sees around 14,000 ships annually, equivalent to 6% of world trade.
The United States remains the largest user of the channel, with 66% of cargo transiting the canal beginning or ending its journey in a US port in 2019. China is the primary source of products passing through the Colón Free Trade Zone, making the waterway a focus of US-China competition.
China’s influence in the Panama Canal has grown since 2017 when Panamanian President Carlos Varela severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognized the PRC. Chinese companies were heavily involved in contracts related to infrastructure in and around the canal, fitting naturally into China’s New Silk Road initiative. Panama was the first Latin American country to join in 2018, reinforcing the existing Chinese influence.
In 2016, China-based Landbridge Group acquired control of Margarita Island, Panama’s largest port on the Atlantic side and the Colón Free Trade Zone, in a $900 million deal. The Panamanian government began renewing the lease of Hutchison Ports PPC, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison Holdings, which serves as the operator of the ports of Balboa and Cristobal.
The Panama Canal, a vital global trade and security hub, is facing challenges due to drought and low water levels. The plan, announced in September 2020, aims to establish a water management system to combat drought and improve local access to water for the next half century.
This presents an opportunity for Chinese investors to expand their presence in Panama independently of the canal. The Treaty of Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal between Panama and the US guarantees permanent neutrality with fair access for all. However, the US reserves the right to use military force to defend the canal against any threat. Any Chinese threat to channel neutrality could trigger US forces through this treaty, so current and future Chinese interventions should be considered with a potential US response in mind.
The US-China relationship is strained due to the growing Chinese influence in Panama, despite China not operating the canal but controlling two ports at either end. The increasing control of Chinese companies over transshipment operations for the US and other countries remains a contentious issue.
In 2023, droughts and low water levels have led to congestion in the Panama Canal and surrounding lakes, causing restrictions on ship passage for a year. This has affected consumers’ access to goods like bananas, coffee, sugar, meat, oil, and LNG, potentially increasing prices. Container ships will be given priority of passage.
The Panama Canal, along with other major canals like the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic, is a crucial global trade route that can be impacted by geopolitical events, environmental concerns, and climate change. Climate change poses a significant threat to the canal’s operations, as rising sea levels and extreme weather events can disrupt traffic and damage infrastructure.
Transshipment hubs, such as the Port of Balboa on the Pacific side and the Port of Cristobal on the Atlantic side, have strategic implications for regional economies and global trade networks. The canal’s stability and efficient operation are vital for maintaining regional stability, fostering economic growth in Central and South America, and preventing conflicts and instability from spreading.
Global supply chain disruptions, such as accidents, political unrest, or maintenance issues, can have ripple effects across the global supply chain, leading to delays in the delivery of goods, increased costs, and supply shortages. Ensuring the security of vessels transiting the canal is essential to prevent piracy, terrorism, and other maritime security threats.
Infrastructure upgrades, such as the Panama Canal Expansion, have implications for the canal’s capacity, efficiency, and competitiveness in the global shipping industry. The geopolitical significance of the Panama Canal continues to evolve and expand, necessitating the collaboration and engagement of multiple stakeholders, including regional governments and global powers.