Chinese firm starts work on $1bn Panamanian megaport

A $1bn project to build a new deepwater port and container terminal near the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal has begun. Both its developer and the firm building it are Chinese.

China Landbridge, a privately owned company based in the northern Chinese port of Rizhao, bought Panama’s largest port, at Margarita Island, in May last year and announced that it wanted to expand and modernise the facilities. The new high-speed, deepwater port will be called the Panama Colón Container Port (PCCP).

With the canal expansion, the future of Panama is bright– Kenneth Zhang, PCCP

In line with China’s grand One Belt, One Road global strategy, the plan is to capitalise on the doubling in the capacity of the canal, which can now handle the New Panamax container ships that can transport up to 14,500 teu (twenty-foot equivalent units). That work was completed in June last year.

The first stone of the port was laid on 7 June by Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela, who commented that the port was the most important Chinese investment in Panama so far.

Ye Cheng, the president of Landbridge Group, said during the ceremony that the port would become one of the most important in the world. He said: "Landbridge’s ports in Asia and Oceania together with PCCP on Margarita Island will be efficiently connected to exploit maritime cooperation, contributing to the economic development of all countries."

Kenneth Zhang, a representative for the PCCP, said last year: "We look at the project on long term and we feel pretty good with the investment. With the canal expansion, the future of Panama is bright, even though we know the maritime sector presently suffers a global crisis but we have a different reading for the future."

Landbridge hangs its shingle at Margarita Island (Thomas Avila/Twitter)

The work will be carried out in three stages. The first will increase the port’s handling capacity to 2.5 million teu and add a liquefied natural gas terminal.

The contractor will be China Communications Construction Company. When the first stage is complete in the second quarter of 2019, PCCP will have four berths with a total quay length of 1.2km and a depth of 18m.

The second and third stages will add a logistics park and more cranage to the port. According to Panamanian website Critica, the final port will have a capacity of 11 million teu, making it the 13th largest container port in the world.

Its construction is expected to create 800 jobs. Some concern has been raised in Panamanian media that local workers may not benefit from this increase in employment.

The Panama America website quotes a stonemason called Reynaldo Bermúdez, 33, who intends to apply for a job, and who called on the project’s managers to hire Panamanians rather than "bringing in cheap labour from other parts of the world".

China Landbridge hit the headlines in May last year when it acquired a 99-year lease on the northern Australian port of Darwin for $361m. This prompted the US government to express concern that the Chinese presence could be used to "facilitate intelligence collection on US and Australian military forces stationed nearby".

Top image: The new port aims to take advantage of the expanded Panama Canal (Dozenist/Creative Commons)

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