The multinational military exercises known as PANAMAX 2015 recently came to a successful close. The exercises brought together military units from 16 countries, mostly from the Western Hemisphere (i.e., the U.S. and regional partner nations) as well as some of Washington’s extra-hemispheric allies. According to a U.S. Army press release, PANAMAX is “a preemptive effort to respond to any request from the government of Panama to protect and guarantee safe passage of traffic through the Panama Canal.” As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, more goods traverse a limited number of maritime pathways, such as the canal, hence it is more important than ever to protect these “maritime choke points,” as Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan called them in the 19th century.
PANAMAX are annual exercises sponsored by the U.S. South Command (SOUTHCOM), the branch of the military that oversees most of Latin America and the Caribbean, and are aimed at responding to crises in the Panama Canal. The most recent version of the exercise was divided into two phases: Phase I Multi-national Forces South and Phase II Combined Land Forces Component, which took place from June 19-27 and from July 27-5, respectively. A total of 16 nations (including the U.S.) had units participate in the exercises, including Latin American states like Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Panama and Peru; as well as Jamaica and the United Kingdom.
According to Lt. Col. Thomas Small, Chief of Operational Exercises, U.S. Army South, “the primary objective of the exercise is to demonstrate the capability of participating nations to conduct coalition operations at the operational level while under the auspices of a United Nations Security Council Resolution.” For their part, Panamanian government officials have praised the exercises as they are aimed at protecting the stability of the Canal.
Precisely what kind of crisis could affect the Panama Canal is worth discussing. The country has two neighbors; one is Costa Rica, an army-less nation that has promoted a pro-peace and pro-negotiations foreign policy. It is similarly difficult to anticipate a deterioration of relations between Panama and its other neighbor, Colombia. Bogota and Panama City have been recently at odds over Panama’s tax haven status, but there has been no incident that justifies open warfare.
As for Hollywood-like scenarios of violent movements taking control of the Panama Canal, it is worth playing devil’s advocate. It is true that Colombian insurgent groups and Mexican drug cartels operate in the area. For example, the FARC is present in the Darien Gap while Mexican cartels like Sinaloa and Los Zetas have operated in the Central American country for years. Moreover, there have been cases of regional insurgent movements taking over government buildings: in 1996, 14 fighters from the Peruvian MRTA held hostages in the Japanese embassy in Peru for 126 days. Similarly, the Colombian insurgent movement M19 took over the Colombian Supreme Court in 1985. Unlike the Peruvian incident, the M19 only lasted two days in the court before Colombian security forces stormed the building.
In other words, there are some regional precedents and current presence of criminal syndicates to justify the training for an incident involving the integrity and/or control Panama Canal itself or its overseeing agency, the Panama Authority. (Due to space issues, I will forego discussing the possibility of a multinational operation to retake control of the Canal à la 1956 Suez Canal crisis, should an authoritarian ruler like General Manuel Noriega come to power).
While a text or e-mail can go from a tablet to a smartphone in an instant, the actual machines that people utilize take longer to ship around the world in bulk quantities. The Canal itself is currently undergoing an expansion to accommodate larger vessels, hence increasing the importance of the international community in securing the critical maritime pathway at all times.
As a caveat to this analysis, it is amusing to hypothesize if a different set of similar exercises will be necessary in the near future as Nicaragua and a Hong Kong-based firm are planning to construct a new trans-oceanic canal across Nicaraguan territory. Should this initiative come to fruition, there would be another one of Mahan’s “choke points” in Central America that will require protection, not just by the local government but also by the international community. If the Nicaraguan Canal is ever built, SOUTHCOM may have to sponsor NICARAGUAX military exercises.