(CNSNews.com) - As the remaining U.S. troops pull out of the Panama Canal Zone, a bipartisan group of U.S. congressional leaders has introduced legislation in the House that asserts the treaty under which Panama is taking control of the strategic waterway is illegal.
In fact, a treaty signed by the United States and Panama in 1903 that gives the U.S. full sovereign rights over the Panama Canal is still in effect, according to the Panama and America Security Act, a bipartisan resolution with 26 co-sponsors, introduced in the House November 9.
"Twenty-two years ago, President Jimmy Carter entered into a treaty with Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos to give these rights away by the end of the millennium. However, President Carter and Torrijos signed two different documents," said Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID), chief sponsor of the legislation.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt secured Panama's independence from Columbia and entered into a treaty with the government of Panama which gave the U.S. full sovereign rights over the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone, Chenoweth said.
When the U.S. Senate signed the 1903 treaty, it included a provision that stated either country could take unilateral action to preserve the neutrality of the canal. However, when that version of the treaty went to the Panamanians for ratification, they added a counter-reservation that contradicted the reservation approved by the U.S. Senate.
"This new text with the counter-reservation was never presented to the Senate for ratification," Chenoweth said. "Furthermore, under Panamanian law, only the president of Panama may sign a treaty. However, Omar Torrijos was not the president, thus making the treaty doubly void."
In addition, the U.S. has a vested interest in the Panama Canal and a responsibility under the Monroe Doctrine to defend and protect the Western Hemisphere, Chenoweth said.
"We've had great diplomatic relations with the government and people of Panama," Chenoweth said. "In fact, over 70 percent of Panamanians believe the U.S. should retain control and operations of the canal."
A major bone of contention is the fact that Hutchison Whampoa, an international shipping company with ties to China's People's Liberation Army, has acquired leases from the Panamanian government giving it control of the ports of Cristobal and Balboa at each end of the canal.
The company is also in the process of taking over Rodman Naval Station and other military facilities being abandoned by the United States.
Presidential candidates also are weighing in on the issue of a Communist takeover of the canal. Speaking at the Richard Nixon Library in California on Nov. 19, Republican presidential contender Steve Forbes said the U.S. must be on the lookout for a continuing Chinese effort to compromise U.S. security around the world.
"The Panama Canal is a good place to start," Forbes said. "Having Chinese companies managing both ends of this strategic chokepoint between the Atlantic and the Pacific is simply unacceptable to American security. In the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine, the Forbes Administration will prevent the hostile interference in the Western Hemisphere by outside powers such as Communist China."
Others have contended that the Panama Canal issue is just another chapter in Communist China conspiracy theories.
Thomas E. McNamara, a former U.S. special negotiator for Panama and president of the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas, said Beijing's interest in Panama is generated more by its bitter rivalry with Taiwan for a presence in Central America than by strategic maneuverings involving the Panama Canal.
"[I]t would be the height of folly for us to approach the security and stability of the canal and our relations with Panama based on a mistaken interpretation of a Beijing-Taiwan rivalry," McNamara said in a Washington Post commentary Nov. 11.
Marine Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told the Armed Services Committee last month that the greatest threat posed to the Panama Canal after the United States pulls out of the isthmus at the end of the year comes from terrorists, not the Chinese Communists.
This assertion was strongly rejected by conservatives monitoring developments in Central America.
"To me, when a military commander serving under President Clinton says something like that, it says very little about how seriously they take the threat of terrorism, it's really a rationalization of ignoring the threat from China," Jeff Bell, a spokesman for GOP presidential contender Gary Bauer, told CNSNews.com.
If elected president, Bauer would make the Chinese presence in Panama "an important subject of bilateral discussions," Bell said.