I do not think the Canal Rojo will be built. It makes no commercial sense. Most independent observers concur. Here, for example, is an article from the South China Morning Post, in which Andy Lane arrives at the same conclusion using different data. Mr. Lane has another good analysis here which doesn’t quite pan the project, but certainly leads towards skepticism.
All that said, I would like it to be built! Simply because it would be cool. But that will only happen if the government of the People’s Republic of China wants it to happen.*
So why might the government of the People’s Republic of China want it to happen?
Well, consider what China might gain from a Nicaragua Canal. Right now, it is nearly a wash between using Panama and using Suez from the East Coast of the U.S. to southern Chinese ports. Using Suez, however, also means going through the South China Sea. Most scenarios in which the South China Sea was closed to shipping would likely also involve fighting around the First Island Chain ... but not all. (An Indonesian collapse? A war with India?) And there are multiple scenarios in which Suez might be closed. A Nicaraguan Canal would provide an insurance route for cargoes to and from the east coasts of North America and Brazil.
The problem? An expanded Panama Canal would do the same thing at lower cost. Remember: there is no way on God’s green earth that China could use the Nicaragua Canal in a situation in which Panama was closed to it. In addition, there would be political benefits to financing a second Panama Canal expansion over building a Nicaragua Canal. Financing a fourth set of Panamanian locks would set off some huffing among the usual suspects here in America, but serious observers (e.g., most plausible U.S. administrations) would be reassured by the fact that a Panama expansion would fall under the rubric of the Neutrality Treaty. Which means a greatly reduced chance of antagonizing Washington. Moreover, another Panama Canal expansion would be uncontentious in Panama ... the same cannot be said of the Gran Canal project in Nicaragua. In other words, all the security gains at less financial cost and less political risk.
In fact, Chinese companies in August of last year broached the possibility of financing a new Panamanian expansion.
There is a second possible reason to build a Nicaragua Canal. Note that Lane does not think that the new canal will lead to price competition with Panama. His logic, however, assumes that the Nicaragua Canal is run as a business. Perhaps China does not plan to run the Canal Rojo as a money-making operation at all. Rather, it could run it as a piece of necessary public infrastructure, operating at cost. In that scenario, a price war with the Panama Canal leading to HKND’s bankruptcy would be a feature, not a bug.
The problem with the second reason? Well, for China to want to do that, it would need to believe that the rates charged by the Panama Canal are a significant drag on commerce. There is not a lot of evidence for that proposition. Would reducing canal tariffs really cause Chinese consumers to buy much more raw material from the east coast of South America or prompt Chinese producers to sell many more goods to the east coast of North America? I have my doubts.
Moreover, how would China insure that its commerce captured the lion’s share of the gains from the Nicaragua Canal? As Carlos Yu and I showed in our book, when the United States tried to give preference to its own ships in the Panama Canal in 1912, British pressure forced the country to change tack. The only reason that the benefits of the Panama Canal went overwhelmingly to the United States during its first 25 years was that the Panama Canal overwhelmingly carried domestic traffic. Maybe China will be able to get away with favoring its commerce over other nations, but I doubt that too. Or maybe geography implies that most of the ships using a low-cost Nicaragua Canal will be carrying Chinese commerce. Maybe ... it would be a hell of a $50 billion bet.
That leaves you with a third possibility: the project would be the 2020s equivalent of the 1960s landing on the Moon. China would be metaphorically planting its flag on the American continent. Sure, the U.S. Navy would remain in complete control of the sea lanes and the People’s Republic would have no sovereignty. But the opening of the Canal Rojo would trumpet the end of America’s informal empire more than anything ...
... other than the actual end of America’s informal empire. Which will not (inasmuch as it survives) be altered in a any substantive way by this project. As stated above, the U.S. Navy will still control the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, I do not see how building this project would win China diplomatic gains in Latin America worth the $50 billion cost. Perhaps I underestimate the power of symbolism?
In short, the Chinese state would obtain at least three advantages from the construction of a money-losing Nicaragua Canal:**
- Insurance against disruptions in Suez, the Indian Ocean, the straits of Malacca, or the South China Sea (although this insurance could be obtained more cheaply using Panama);
- The chance to drive transit rates down to their operating cost;
Are those advantages enough for the Chinese government to lend billions of billions of dollars to an entreprise that will likely go bankrupt?
* Accuracy compels us to point out that so far, there is no evidence that the Chinese government intends to back the Nicaragua Canal project with public funds.
** We here at TPTM try to be meticulous when using the words “state” and “government.” The advantages listed above apply to whatever government controls the Chinese state as well as many of the other important stakeholders of that state. There may be further advantages to the Xi administration in particular (or the Communist Party in general) beyond those discussed above. And if there are, please tell us!