The fate of the Panama Canal has attracted quite a few British writers from Graham Greene's Getting To Know The General to John Le Carre, who wrote The Tailor Of Panama. Greene's book is not really a piece of fiction, although many of the characters appear fictitious, but rather his musings on his unlikely friendship and appreciation of Panama's General Omar Torrijos Herrera, the man who signed the agreement with president Jimmy Carter in 1977 which led to the handover which will formally be completed at the end of the year. Le Carre's work is even more prescient. Although it is basically about shenanigans among British diplomats seeking to exploit fears of an uprising, Le Carre keeps mentioning rumours that the Chinese are taking a bigger and bigger interest in the canal. When the book came out, this seemed even more unlikely than the rest of the plot, but is now being taken very seriously by certain senators in the US Congress. While Hutchison Whampoa is an unlikely instrument of Chinese expansionism, the scare reveals a trend: the rise of China as a mercantile power. Mainland state shipping company Cosco is the Panama Canal's biggest customer. Close behind, Taiwan's Evergreen shipping giant operates one of the four main ports. Hutchison Ports now runs the Balboa and Cristobal ports. Panamanian Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Aleman suggested that if the United States was really worried, it could buy the firm's stock in London and take a controlling share. China is becoming the world's biggest exporter of bulk manufacturing goods like toys, textiles and shoes, and is moving into trade in electrical goods like refrigerators, televisions and washing machines. The vast to-ing and fro-ing of parts which are then assembled on the mainland and shipped to markets on both sides of the Atlantic all goes through two choke points: the Panama Canal and the Strait of Malacca between Singapore and Indonesia. Some American strategists who used to ask themselves why the Soviet Union devoted vast resources to developing a Pacific fleet which was penned up in the Sea of Japan are now wondering about the mainland's build-up of a navy and why it is so determined to control the Spratly Islands. As the lifeblood of its economy becomes bound up with international trade, mainland leaders are inevitably going to be concerned about what would happen during any international conflict. Taiwan clearly has most to fear from the potential threat of mainland power to control regional sea lanes, although its main customers are in Japan and on the west coast of America. A more tangible problem for Taiwan is that the US is no longer concerned with the threat of communist governments seizing power in Central America as it was when Greene was writing his book. The Sandinistas have lost power in Nicaragua and Cuba is a fading force. This means that the new government in Panama looks like it is slowly moving to switch diplomatic recognition to China. The mainland is becoming a far more important customer than Taiwan and if Panama took this step the right-wing governments in other states would probably follow suit. Washington is now probably less concerned with the spread of communism than with an invasion of mainland economic migrants. Panama, as a trade entrepot, has become a conduit for Chinese seeking to get to America or to smuggle themselves to other parts of Latin America. Now that is a line worthy of Le Carre.