Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing dismissed suggestions that his company Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. would control the Panama Canal when it begins operating container ports at each end of the strategic waterway.
Li was responding to remarks by President Bill Clinton, who said last week that he did not expect any adverse consequences from "the Chinese running the canal".
"We cannot possibly control the canal," Li said. "We are only an operator of container ports there."
Li has strong ties to China. U.S. lawmakers have expressed concerns that this could eventually give China effective control of the 51 mile (82 km) long canal once the U.S. military pulls out. The Clinton administration has repeatedly assured them that China will not take it over.
Li noted the container ports were for loading, unloading and storing cargo and had no role in operating the canal.
Hutchison, with port operations around the world, won a 25-year lease
to run the Panama cargo ports after the United States cedes control of the waterway on Dec. 31.
"We are not even the largest operator in Panama, compared with some of the Americans and Taiwan operators," Li said. "We are running a container port business
, which has nothing to do with the operation of the Panama Canal."
Britain returned Hong Kong to China in July 1997, and the Asian financial center became a Special Administrative Region of China. It was granted 50 years of autonomy for its capitalist economy and British common law system.
But the thought of having a Hong Kong-listed blue chip firm involved in Panama cargo operations has caused alarm among some members of the U.S. Congress, who fear Hutchison could put a strangle-hold on the canal.