Wang Jing, the enigmatic businessman behind Nicaragua's $50 billion Interoceanic Grand Canal, shrugs off scepticism about how a little-known entrepreneur can be driving a huge transcontinental project, insisting he's not an agent of the Beijing government. "I know you don't believe me," said Wang, who reckons that he's forked-out about $100 million in canal preparation work, and is burning as much as $10 million a month on the project.
Wang grabbed global headlines last June when he sealed a controversial no-bid 50-year renewable concession from Nicaragua's Sandinista government to develop the $50 billion canal to rival Panama's, and related facilities.
Nicaragua preparation is on schedule, Wang said. In January, he and President Daniel Ortega issued a joint statement to address what Wang described as "misleading reports" that the start of construction would be delayed.
The proposed scope is enormous, comprising construction of a waterway that may extend 130 miles (210 km), depending on the route selected, along with two ports, a railway, oil pipeline, and an international airport.
The canal would be longer, deeper and wider than the Panama Canal, about 500 miles (800 km) to the southeast.
The scale of the project has led some to suggest it could only be viable with the backing of the Chinese government, which might see it as a geopolitical play to balance U.S. influence in Central America.
"I can't imagine (Wang) would have gone forward without at least coordinating with the Chinese government," said R Evan Ellis, assistant professor for Hemispheric Defense Studies at National Defense University in Washington. "Big Chinese companies just don't parachute down into Latin America."
The project, Ellis estimates, may provide China with commercial leverage over key Latin American governments and local companies, which may prove crucial to guarantee trade routes and access to raw materials. "How the project ends will likely depend on the government of the People's Republic of China," he said.