China is looking to build a railway link from the Atlantic to the Pacific, hugging the Darien Gap and going from Chocó’s Gulf of Cupica to Antioquia’s Gulf of Urabá. The aim is to build a land-based alternative to the Panama Canal, allowing easier import and export to and from China. The main practical challenge, though, is successfully completing the 136-mile railway in an area known for its strong paramilitary presence.
The project, if brought to completion, could be a boon or bust for Colombian businessmen. The reason for a bust being that the Panama Canal is already in the process of doubling its capacity, a multibillion dollar undertaking. Currently, almost 50% of the vessels that traverse the canal already need its full width in order to pass through. At some point this year, it is estimated that one-third of the roughly 15,000 ships that will pass through the canal will be too big to make the crossing. The expansion project, while being approved by Panama’s government back in 2006, is not expected to be completed until 2014.
If the major reason against building the Colombian railway isn’t enough, there’s always the secondary reason to look at. In addition to the canal, the Panama Canal Railway also exists (and has existed since the 1850’s) and happens to do just what the Chinese project hopes to accomplish in Colombia, at three times less the distance.
What seems to be more at play here is not the fact that Colombia needs the railway, but that they want what China wants. Sure, a railway would improve Colombian infrastructure and provide jobs for Colombians but it would also help solidify relations with a major trade partner. Not only that, but China would very likely get first dibs on Colombian coal exports, which currently leave Colombian shores from the Atlantic ocean, as well as other favorable concessions. In light of another joint project that would see a major expansion of the Buenaventura port, it seems like Chinese interests will influence Colombia for the foreseeable future.
In a way, the title of this article serves as two since more powerful countries tend to train developing nations how to behave by favoring policies that aid the larger country. The main caveat against both countries having stronger ties, however, is that Chinese products will both enter and pass through Colombia and thereby compete with Colombian products internally and abroad.