On the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, a massive gray convention center built largely by Chinese contractors gleams in the sun, eagerly hosting visitors from a world emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic. A few miles north, colorful shipping containers lay stacked under the stern gaze of quay cranes at the Port of Balboa, a facility run by a Chinese-linked firm.
A new bridge is supposed to rise in the same area. Various plans have called for it to have six lanes, two soaring towers and even a high-end restaurant. To the delight of Panamanians, the span would ease the traffic clogging other bridges connecting this Central American country’s east and west, the kind that leads to two- or even three-hour commutes. To the annoyance of U.S. diplomats, the contract to build the bridge has been given to a consortium controlled by the Chinese government.
It didn’t have to be this way.
In late 2017, the then-U.S. ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, urged American firms to compete to build what’s called the “fourth bridge.” It was a sensitive time. Earlier that year, Panama had switched its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Beijing, blindsiding Washington. A bid for the $1.5 billion project could have signaled America’s enduring interest in this country in its own hemisphere, home to a canal whose U.S.-led construction transformed global trade over a century ago. But U.S. firms, for various reasons, declined to bid. And unlike his counterparts from China, with their communist rule and state-owned enterprises, Feeley, a mere U.S. diplomat, held little sway over American companies.
“I felt frustrated and powerless,” Feeley recalled. “I rang every bell in Washington that I could to try to drum up U.S. private sector interest. I asked for a commercial delegation to come down, and I got nothing.”
Such scenes have been playing out from Kenya to the Solomon Islands as the United States and China engage in a growing contest for international influence that could heavily shape geopolitics in the decades ahead. Beijing’s success in bolstering its presence in the Americas attests to the scope of its ambitions and the extent of the United States’ challenge in answering them. President Joe Biden and his aides recognize the stakes involved, and they argue that to compete with China, the United States must, above all, invest in its physical, technological and even sociological infrastructure at home. [Continue reading…]