Tensions surrounding the turnover of the Panama Canal from U.S. to Panamanian authority are running high. Last week, Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka-Shing said he had no intention of taking control of the Panama Canal, as suggested by some U.S. lawmakers. Li was responding for the first time personally to charges by U.S. Senate Majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) that his company, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., could put a strangle-hold on the strategic waterway.
"I have no intention to control the Panama Canal," Li said. "This is a joke but I don't want to attack anyone."
The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee is expected soon to discuss the right of a Hutchison subsidiary to run two container ports at the Atlantic and Pacific entrances
of the canal.
The United States will hand over the Panama Canal to Panama on December 31, ending a 96-year military presence in the Central American country.
In August, Lott wrote to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, saying that "U.S. naval ships will be at the mercy of Chinese-controlled pilots and could even be denied passage through the canal by Hutchison, an arm of the People's Liberation Army".
Li said he appreciated "the American government, the White House, the military department, they have many times made it very clear ... we have no right to control the canal." Hutchison had rejected Lott's allegations in August, saying that it had no influence over the canal's operation or shipping traffic.
Lott had complained in the letter to Cohen sent on August 1 that Hutchison's operation of container ports at each end of the canal was a security threat and a sign of China's growing influence over the waterway. "This administration is allowing a scenario to develop where U.S. national security interests could not be protected without confronting the Chinese communists in the Americas," wrote Lott.
Li rose from rags to riches in Hong Kong's property market. He has close ties with the communist government in Beijing but Hutchison has denied any connection to the PLA.
Hutchison is one of Hong Kong's biggest blue chip companies, with extensive holdings around the world. It is 49.97 percent owned by property developer Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd.