Nicaragua Approves Chinese-Built Panama Canal Rival

Nicaragua’s National Assembly has, as expected, approved plans for a Chinese firm to build and run a new waterway to rival the Panama Canal. From José De Córdoba at The Wall Street Journal:

Supporters of the 50-year concession, approved Thursday, hope that it will propel Nicaragua out of its misery by boosting employment and economic growth. But there is also ample suspicion that the project will flounder, as so many others have done since the first government contract for a canal through Nicaragua was awarded in 1825.

[…] The law granting the concession to HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co., known as HKND Group, whose sole owner is Wang Jing, a 40-year-old Beijing-based entrepreneur, was introduced last week to Nicaragua’s congress, which is controlled by Mr. Ortega’s ruling Sandinista party.

[…] The weight of history against a canal being built in Nicaragua is enormous. […]

[…] “It’s been like looking for a nonexistent El Dorado,” said Arturo Cruz, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to Washington. “It’s done us a lot of psychological harm as a country.” Mr. Cruz said, however, that he is less skeptical than usual about the current project. [Source]

In a broad overview at TIME, Ishaan Tharoor and Tim Rogers describe the scheme’s curious international backdrop and the mystery surrounding Wang and HKND Group:

[…] Nicaragua is an unlikely beachhead for Beijing’s expanding geopolitical clout. The Central American nation is among a handful of countries that maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing still considers a renegade province. The Chinese company that was granted the generous concession, HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment (HKND-Group) — an enigmatic firm that was recently registered in the Cayman Islands and supposedly based in Hong Kong — doesn’t appear to have any direct ties to the Chinese government, nor any international experience managing infrastructure projects. Nor are there any immediate signs of Nicaragua following what Costa Rica did in 2007 and breaking ties with Taiwan in favor of new benefactors from the Chinese mainland.

The company’s CEO, Wang Jing, is a Chinese telecom tycoon. On the website of his flagship cell-phone company Xinwei, Wang says his wireless company, which consequentially just received a full-service telecom concession to operate in Nicaragua, is dedicated to the “progress of the world civilization” and “will become a legend!” But other than his official bio, little is known about Wang. He has visited Nicaragua only once— a stiff, no-smiles photo op with President Ortega last September.

“Why Wang Jing? I really don’t know, but I would guess that no one else was willing to fund a project of this sort,” says Margaret Myers, director of the China and Latin America program at the Inter-American Dialogue. Myers says Wang is rumored to have government connections, but so far there is no indication that the Chinese government is interested in the project. “I haven’t seen the project referenced at all in Chinese official or social media,” she says. [Source]

Critics have voiced alarm at the lack of transparency surrounding the project, the risk of environmental damage, and the extent of Chinese involvement. The National Assembly debate descended at times into racism, according to Tim Rogers, who gathered and translated a selection of quotes from the session at The Nicaragua Dispatch:

[…] “This law was written in Chinese and translated into Spanish by a computer program… We are giving up one-third of our national territory.”- Liberal Congressmen Carlos Langrand.

[…] “Do you think Sandino would support a pact between Ortega and a Chinaman? What would Sandino do?” –Liberal Congressman Adolfo Martinez Cole.

[…] “We can’t say you are selling out the country, because you are just giving it away.”- Liberal Congressman Raul Herrera.

[…] “The indigenous people are not opposed to development, but development has to include our communities… […] The Rama people have not been consulted on this, nor has the territorial government of indigenous people living in Laguna de Perlas. Those two indigenous territories lay right in the path of five of the six proposed canal routes. […] We can’t approve of this concession without information about it, and this law can’t substitute the legally established rights of the indigenous under Law 445.”- indigenous Congressman Brooklyn Rivera, YATAMA/ Sandinista alliance. [Source]

China’s environmental track record has caused particular concern. From a local newspaper editorial partially translated by Gervase Poulden at chinadialogue:

The judgment of Incer Barquero and other Nicaraguan environmentalists is much more important than the opinion of the Chinese who want to invest millions in the construction of the canal. Communist China has not exactly distinguished itself as a country concerned about safeguarding the environment, not even [within] its own borders and much less in other parts of the world. Quite the opposite, in its desire to overtake economically the USA, Western Europe and Japan, China has been the most polluting country in the world and the worst enemy of nature and environmental protection. [Source]