While some mistakenly blame the Trump administration for China’s meteoric rise to economic and military hegemony around the globe, it’s not a recent phenomenon.
Where there is a vacuum, China will fill it.
As a matter of fact, I can name at least two instances in the 1990s where I had a front row seat to our gradual abdication as a “player” on the world scene: the Philippines and Panama.
Ironically, I happened to be on the last ship leaving each country after the formal cutting of our official ties.
This is my story.
“We’re goin’ ‘ome, we’re goin’ ‘ome,
Our ship is at the shore,
And you must pack your ‘aversak
For we won’t come back no more!”
— Kipling, “Trooping” (1890).
We called it “Subic,” but the earlier Spanish referred to it as “Subig,” true to its ethnic Tagalog language origin. After existing for almost seven decades as an exotic, naval backwater in the middle of “monsoon Asia,” Naval Station, Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, became by 1968 America’s premier overseas base in the Pacific Ocean if not the world. This tremendous expansion can be attributed to Subic’s utilization as an entrepot for both ships and military personnel en route to duty in the war zone, only 600 miles across the South China Sea. Subic was, in the parlance of the sailors and Marines passing through on the way to Vietnam, the jumping off place, the last stop before the “heart of darkness.”
There was always a troubled relationship between the United States and what was essentially its last overseas colony, although some residents of modern Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico might beg to differ. We got into the “Great Game” of imperialism as a result of our victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, receiving several of Spain’s former colonies as war reparations in the Treaty of Paris which officially ended the war. The acquisition of the Philippines was extremely controversial in the United States, with many not understanding how a democracy could justify enlarging its boundaries by acquiring colonies, however far away.
Immediately after the ratification of the Treaty of Paris (1898), a proclamation issued by President William McKinley, sarcastically known to many as the “Benevolent Manifesto,” declared that “the future control, disposition and government of the Philippines are ceded to the United States.”
This was a tremendous disappointment to the Filipino patriots who, having fought alongside the American soldiers, mistakenly assumed that the United States would support their dream of becoming a sovereign nation.
There’s that famous anecdote about McKinley pacing the floor of the White House, unable to sleep, trying to justify our betrayal of Philippine independence. Finally, he said, “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could do for them as our fellow man for whom Christ died. Then I went to bed and slept soundly.”
He also supposedly made that infamous statement about the need to “take care of our little brown brothers,” which would definitely get him “canceled” out today.
Over the years, the importance of the Philippines to the United States, especially the military facilities at Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Station, waxed and waned. Captured by the Japanese in World War II, with the Bataan Death March passing only 40 miles away, the Philippines assumed a special strategic importance during the Cold War and was a major staging point for both men and supplies during the Vietnam War. I can remember spending several months in dry dock at the Subic Ship Repair Facility onboard USS Basilone (DD-824), the only ship in the Vietnam War to strike a floating mine, probably one of our own.
During the war, Subic was a major R&R site for troops stationed in Vietnam, and it unfortunately, turned into the arm pit of the Far East, a combination of Dodge City, the blue light area of Amsterdam, and the last outpost on Mars on pay day.
For better or worse, all things come to an end, and in 1992, the Philippine Senate, citing such reasons that the American bases “were an insult to Philippine sovereignty; the bases had supported the repressive regime of President Ferdinand Marcos; the bases house tactical nuclear weapons which could result in catastrophic accidents; the bases are a corrupting influence on people,” etc., voted to forego the $400 million per year rent that we were paying and end the 94 years of American military presence.
After a ceremony, in which I was a participant, then-President Fidel Ramos helped to raise the largest free-flying flag in the Philippines in front of the former naval headquarters at Olongapo. A few hours later, the USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3), a helicopter carrier, got underway from the Naval Station with the last personnel assigned to Subic onboard, and, as it rounded Padre Island and headed out to sea, American presence in the Philippines ended, just like that. I waved goodbye.
For several years afterwards, the Naval Station, with its huge infrastructure and countless millions worth of assets, was bogged down in Filipino politics and red tape, and sat stagnate. But before long, the ever-helpful Chinese showed up, with deep pockets, and helped turn the former base into an economic “free port,” the ship repair facility into a Chinese-owned shipyard; the adjacent Cubi Point Naval Air Station into the largest FEDEX shipping hub in Asia and they also built a slew of luxury hotels. Interestingly enough, several of these ventures have already failed.
As far as Panama, I’m still upset with Jimmy Carter. I’m sure he’s a nice fellow, but he gave away the Panama Canal and presented the Chinese another opportunity to eat our lunch. At his urging in 1977, the Democratic Congress voted to gradually turn the canal over to the Panamanians, giving them total control in 1999.
I’ve transited the canal in the 1950s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s and the 90s, and I saw it turn from a well-oiled, highly efficient, wonder of the world example of American ingenuity into a deteriorating, rust-bound failure of pacificist foreign policy.
In my opinion, we stole it fair and square from Colombia with the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, which gave us rights into perpetuity to a 10-mile strip across the Republic of Panama. Although a French company, La Societe Civile Internationale du Canal Interoceanique, had actually started construction across the Columbian Province of Panama in the 1870s, strategic thinkers as far back as Spain’s Charles V in 1524 saw the value of a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In modern times, such a canal cuts almost 8,000 miles off an ocean voyage from New York City to San Francisco around Cape Horn.
The leader of the original French effort was an entrepreneur named Ferdinand de Lessups who had successfully built the sea-level Suez Canal which connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas. He was not an engineer, however, and did not take into account the mountainous spine of Central America, which rises to a height of over 110 feet above sea level as it crosses Panama.
His “La Grande Tranchee” (the great trench) was doomed to failure from the beginning because of the prodigious amount of earth removal a sea-level canal would require. Water won’t flow uphill, but it was tropical diseases, primarily malaria and yellow fever, that ultimately stopped the French effort after the expenditure of countless millions of francs and the loss of more than 22,000 worker’s lives.
Young French professionals taking jobs on the canal often took their own coffins with them because of the high death rate and short life expectancy. Through the 1970s, you could still see the abandoned remains of the French railroad engines, cranes and other digging equipment lying in the jungle alongside the canal.
When Teddy Roosevelt, who had served as secretary of the Navy and understood the importance of sea power and being able to move Navy warships quicky from coast to coast, became President in 1901 after William McKinley’s assassination, he made building the canal a priority for the United States. However, he had to manipulate a revolution and create the Republic of Panama to do it.
Controlling the rampant diseases was almost as problematic. In 1897, Britain’s Ronald Ross proved in India that malaria and yellow fever were spread by the mosquito, and not by the medieval “miasma,” or malevolent wind, which was also blamed for the plague and the “Black Death.” This was a common idea, even in the United States. For example, when the wall was built around the recently completed hospital at Naval Station, Pensacola, in 1835, they made it 12 feet tall, high enough it was thought to keep out the “miasma” coming off Pensacola bay.
You can still see the wall today, although some will tell you that the wall was built 12 feet tall because they didn’t think mosquitos could fly that high.
It took two years for American Army medical officers to get the mosquitos under control along the canal route. In the meantime, plans were drawn up for a canal that would utilize water from the Chagres River to form a reservoir (Gatun Lake) of water needed to operate three huge locks (Pedro Miguel, Miraflores, and Gatun) that would raise and lower ships on their 82-kilometer journey across Panama.
The canal was completed in 1914 and has been in use ever since, serving as a source of revenue for both the United States and Panama. For example, the cruise ship, Rhapsody of the Seas, charged for its gross weight, established a toll record in 1977 when it paid $153,662.66 to cross the waterway. On Aug. 23, 1928, Richard Halliburton transited the canal swimming, and he paid a toll of 36 cents since he only weighed 150 pounds. Until the turnover to Panama, the headquarters of the Panama Commission was located in New Orleans, in the tall, oddly shaped building on the downtown riverfront.
I was present at, but not a part of, an early turning over ceremony in the mid-‘80s, when my ship was in port Panama City, the capitol. Since then, a lot of things have happened, the most significant being the widening of the canal to handle larger ships (Panamax) and its reopening in 2016.
Naturally, the ubiquitous and ever-helpful Chinese stepped up to the plate in our absence, indirectly financing some of the canal improvements, buying up port facilities and other Panamanian infrastructure, even attempting to build a huge embassy at the Pacific entrance to the canal so that the Chinese flag would be the first one seen by entering ships. This plan was thwarted by American diplomatic opposition, however. Our last Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, referred to such Chinese investments as “debt trap diplomacy.”
A few years ago, the then-chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the “Communist Chinese had virtually accomplished a stronghold on the Panama Canal.” And it was no coincidence that the first super large ship to transit the enlarged canal was a Chinese-owned container ship, with the unwieldy name of “Costco Shipping Panama,” carrying 9,472 containers, which is a lot of iPhones.
Hedging its bets, China has also started building a new canal across Nicaragua, which at 172 miles, will be longer and deeper than the Panama Canal. I guess that’s the other end of the “New Silk Road.”
You may also remember when then-Gov. Haley Barber diverted $570 million in federal Katrina relief money to the restoration and expansion of the Port of Gulfport so it could handle those bigger “Panamax” ships that were sure to come?
There was also talk about building an elevated expressway over Highway 49 into Gulfport to handle the freight traffic, and Hattiesburg was to be an important rail center and the distribution point for “ro-ro” (roll on, roll off) containerized cargo. Although some work on the port has commenced, it was then announced that the long-term goal was to dredge the Gulfport ship channel (there’s only one) to a depth of 45 feet, it now being just 36 feet. Unfortunately, the average Panamax ship requires a channel at least 50 feet deep. I keep looking every time I go to the coast, but all I see is banana boats. There seems to be a disconnect somewhere. But what do I know?
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.