CBNNews.com - The Panama Canal has been one of the world's most significant waterways, bridging the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The United States built and controlled the canal for 85 years before handing it back to panama in 1999. Since then, China has become its second largest user.
The first Chinese immigrants came to Panama about 150 years ago to build the railroads. Today, Chinese Panamanians make up the largest and one of the most influential minority groups in the nation.
Fermin Tomas Chan, head of the Chinese Cultural Center and Sun Yat-sen School in Panama says that the Chinese community is "the most integrated community in Panamanian life. We have held every political position, except president. We feel that we're a very important part of this economy."
His school has a long wait list, as students of all nationalities study Spanish, English, and Chinese- the country's three most important languages.
Strong Chinese Population
There are strong Chinese influences throughout Panama, especially in Panama City's Chinatown, which is the largest in Central America. Some even consider the high rice consumption nationwide to be the direct result of the Chinese population.
It's hard to ignore this growing influence and some worry the Chinese interest here could pose a security risk for the United States.
Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa already owns two of panama's largest ports, and Chinese companies have been key bidders in the Panama Canal expansion project.
John Tkacik, a china expert for the heritage foundation, says an expanded panama canal would be good for the U.S., But a foreign-controlled canal could conflict with U.S. interests.
"Panama is right in the backyard of the United States," he says. "You or I would feel a bit uneasy if all of a sudden some foreign adversary had easy access naval to bases in the Panama Canal."
China's commercial presence in the Americas combined with its growing interest in Venezuelan crude oil make the Panama Canal a lucrative investment. But chances are Panama won't be dominated by China any time soon.
It's currently one of only twenty three countries with diplomatic ties to Taiwan, instead of mainland China. Furthermore, Tkacik says the relations between Panama and the U.S. remain significant.
"There's no question in my mind that the influence of the State Department or the Pentagon on Panama's diplomatic decisions is a very important one."
As China's influence expands in Latin America, partnerships with the U.S. could weaken. Part of that is the possibility Panamanian voters might elect a pro-China president this year, though none of the leading candidates seem to be heading in that direction.
Judging from the robust economy here, which is the fastest growing in Latin America, Panama seems to be using these political tensions to its own advantage.
*Original post February 25, 2009.