Although Panama has no standing army and its 12,000 domestic security personnel would be no match for any serious aggressor, the 1977 treaty also allows the U.S. to intervene militarily if the security of the Canal Zone is threatened. And since Beijing's ability to project military power even as far as Taiwan and the Spratly Islands is looking somewhat questionable, Central America is probably a little out of reach. "We wouldn't have adopted the treaty if it was going to hurt national security," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "And besides, there's no strategic threat to the U.S. from the south." Not counting the Chinese, of course, whose menace will be felt most during U.S. election season.
Is China sneaking up on our southern flank? Well, if you believe the likes of Pat Buchanan, Washington is leaving the door wide open to the Peopleĺs Liberation Army on Monday, when it gives Panama the keys to the last U.S. military bases in the Canal Zone. The handover of Howard Air Force Base and Fort Kirby clears the way for the transfer of the canal to Panama by the end of this year. But that has some U.S. hawks worried. Both Buchanan and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott have cited a Chinese threat in the isthmus, based on the fact that the company contracted to operate the canal is Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., which they assert has links to the Chinese military. But Lott's warning in August that "U.S. naval ships will be at the mercy of Chinese-controlled pilots and could even be denied passage by Hutchison" and Buchanan's charge last week that the transfer compromises national security may be somewhat exaggerated. "Hutchison is one of the world's finest port management companies and few observers believe it's an arm of the Chinese military," says TIME Latin America bureau chief Tim McGirk. "Besides, under the treaty with Panama, U.S. Navy ships keep their privilege of cutting to the front of the line of vessels waiting to pass through the canal."