Author: Antonio Guerrero

NEWSMAKERS: COLOMBIA

By Antonio Guerrero

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Santos: In talks with China over 250-mile rail link

The first ship crossing the Panama Canal had barely completed its voyage, after the canal opened in 1914, when engineers and politicians began conspiring to build its rival. While many plans never made it off the drawing board,China may be putting its money behind a viable proposal in Colombia.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos says talks with China are advancing for construction of some 250 miles of railways linking the country’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The nearly$8 billion plan, for which the China Development Bank has pledged financing, also involves construction of a new port near the Atlantic coast city of Cartagena and upgrading of an existing port in the Pacific coast city of Buenaventura. The “Ship-to-Rail” alternative to the Panama Canal’s all-water route would give China access to Colombia’s rich coal deposits, while facilitating shipments of Chinese products to Colombia, and possibly beyond to other Latin American markets.

The political implications of the Chinese plan are complex. Washington has provided Colombia with some $8 billion in aid to fight guerrilla rebels and drug cartels since 1999, though Colombians have been discouraged by recent aid cuts and a pending US free-trade agreement that has been stalled since 2006. China, though a major user of the Panama Canal, which is currently undergoing a $5.25 billion expansion slated for completion in 2015, is nevertheless displeased with Panama’s ongoing alliance with Taiwan.

Sino-Colombian trade has recently been rising sharply,soaring by more than 70% year-on-year to $4.8 billion in 2010. Yet, while Santos says plans for the new route are under way, critics note that no feasibility study has been presented. Alberto Aleman Zubieta, head of the Panama Canal Authority,says the overland route poses no serious competition to the canal.