Question about Panama Canal

Just saw a Nova about the Panama Canal. In it, the narrator said that while Panama owns it, it is a neutral zone, and the US has the right to defend the neutrality. Does that mean that if we were at war with someone we would let their ships pass?

It probably means that Panama can’t side with someone else and prevent us from using the canal.

The Panama Canal Neutrality Treaty, signed by Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos in 1977, guarantees that the Canal will remain neutral in time of war, and allow passage to ships of any nation. The U.S. has the authority to defend this neutrality, but not to intervene in Panamanian domestic affairs:

From the treaty:

In effect, what this does is prevent Panama from denying passage to ships any country. If it tried to do so, the U.S. is allowed to intervene.

However, if a vessel from a country which was at war with the U.S. approached the Panama, there would be nothing to prevent the U.S. from sinking of capturing it in international waters before it reached the Canal, or after it left. For all intents and purposes, the U.S. can deny passage through the Canal without violating the treaty.

PS. I can see the Pacific entrance to the Canal from my apartment window.

Wouldn’t it be rich if a US warship and an enemy warship were to pass each other while transiting the canal?

Of course, as mentioned no enemy warship is likely to even get close enough to the canal to transit it. I’m sure in time of war the US would bottle up both sides outside of Panama’s territorial waters. Given that no other country on earth has a navy even approaching ours in capability this wouldn’t be too hard to do for the US.

I also bet, however, that if push really came to shove the US would politely ask the Panamanians to close the canal to an enemy of the US (assuming for some reason teh US couldn’t close both sides itself) and if they didn’t you might see the US conveniently forgetting its treaty obligations and go in and close it themselves.

Kind of an aside, but is it true that companies controlled by the Chinese military are located at both ends of the Panama Canal?

>> I can see the Pacific entrance to the Canal from my apartment window

Big deal. I can see it on my monitor

Actually I wish I could see it outside my window… or my porthole.

Hutchinson Whampoa Ltd., a Hong Kong based company, was granted a 25 year lease (with an option on a 25 year extension) for the operation of the container ports of Balboa and Cristobal at either end of the Canal. Some conservative politicans allege that the company has ties to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army, and that this arrangement somehow gives China “control” over the Canal. As far as I can see, even if these allegations were true, this is pure paranoia. The ports don’t have any direct connection with the operation of the Canal itself - most ships just pass right through without using the ports at all. Operation of the Canal itself is completely under the control of the Panamanian government.

More information about the deal and aspects of the debate can be found here.