Chinese entrepreneur reveals route for Nicaraguan canal
For hundreds of years, men have dreamed of building a canal across Nicaragua, conquering this volatile land of volcanoes and rain forests and breaking Panama’s monopoly on global shipping.
Now that dream has moved a step closer to reality as a Chinese entrepreneur unveiled his route for a 170-mile, £26 billion waterway from the Pacific to the Caribbean.
If Wang Jing, an intensely private 40-year-old businessman from Beijing, pulls off the feat, it will rank as one of the greatest engineering marvels in history.
But sitting in the offices of his telecommunications company in an industrial park north of Beijing, Mr Wang is clearly very serious and very determined to succeed.
“I am 100 percent certain the construction will begin in December 2014 and we will finish in five years in 2019,” he said.
He added that while a feasibility report is still ongoing, “the framework” of the project has been decided. “There will be small changes but no big changes”.
The revelation of the route is likely to dismay environmentalists, who have complained that Lake Nicaragua, already heavily polluted with sewage, could be further harmed by the passage of some of the world’s largest supertankers.
However, Mr Wang said he would put environmental protection at the heart of the project.
“It is very clear to us that Lake Nicaragua is the mother lake of the country, a symbol like the Yellow River is to China. So protecting this lake is the focus of our feasibility report,” he said.
“I take all responsibility for any environmental damage. I have told my employees that if we make a mistake on this front, we will be dishonoured in the history textbooks of Nicaragua,” he added.
The project has raised many eyebrows. Mr Wang has no history of huge infrastructure projects. The engineering challenge is immense, with tides on the two coasts differing in height by as much as 20ft. And Nicaragua is hardly an investment-grade country, making it difficult to raise the vast sums required.
Mr Wang said he would name his investors in the next two months, but added that all the funds necessary had already been secured from China, Europe and the United States. “Our investors are big banks and other large institutions,” he said. “They are first class investors”.
China Development Bank, which is mandated by the Chinese government to lend money to large infrastructure projects both at home and abroad, granted Mr Wang’s telecoms company, Xinwei, a 12 billion yuan (£1.3 billion) credit line in 2011 to expand its business overseas.
However, he declined to reveal if CDB would again be involved. “Whether it is China Development Bank or other banks there is no difference; they are financial institutions. There will be no hidden politics,” he said.
The walls of Mr Wang’s telecoms company are hung with pictures of China’s top leaders. His meeting room boasts an enormous mural of Chairman Mao, and his office contains dozens of scale models of Chinese army tanks, jets, rocket launchers and satellites. But he insisted that he has no government connections.
“There is no Chinese government involvement, no guidance, no one saying we should cooperate with this firm or do that. The money we have spent so far, several millions, has come from me personally,” he added.
While Mr Wang insists there is no political element to the project, the Panamanian government suggested the US – which built the Panama Canal and controlled it until 1999 – would hardly be “amenable” to the idea of a Chinese rival.
“I don’t think it’ll be funny for the Americans to have the Chinese with a canal through Central America,” Fernando Núñez Fábrega, the foreign minister, told The Daily Telegraph.
But he said Panama was skeptical that the canal could be built, let alone compete with the established route. “We have never taken it seriously,” he said.
“We have spent $5.2 billion (£3.4bn) in doubling our canal capacity, so for somebody to do a start-up is a difficult proposition at this point in time,”
Mr Wang, however hit back at suggestions he was unprepared for the colossal undertaking.
“You may not believe it, but I am 41 years old and I have never owned a mobile phone. I do not have one on me now. But I run a telecoms company. In fact, I had no experience of telecoms until I started here in 2009. I am the man who sets the direction,” he said.
He spoke in detail of his plans over the next year-and-a-half until ground is broken on the canal. It is, he acknowledged. “a huge project”, particularly as Nicaragua is not a developed country. “Even on Google Maps a lot of it is a blur.”
There are 5000 people working on the feasibility study alone, Mr Wang said. He has also employed a score of international law firms to safeguard his 100-year lease on the route against a change in Nicaragua’s political climate, and there are also reports that McKinsey, the consultancy, has been hired.
A canal across Nicaragua was first suggested in 1567, when King Felipe II of Spain ordered a survey. But with many of today’s supertankers too large for the Panama canal, and with rich shale gas deposits in the United States looking for an export route to Asia, the project has again been resuscitated.
Mr Wang stumbled across the history of the canal idea while preparing a telecoms bid for the Nicaraguan government. It caught his imagination, and he came up with a proposal.
“They had always had this dream for hundreds of years and suddenly a Chinese guy shows up and says he has a plan. So they were very surprised.”
Additional reporting by Adam Wu and Harriet Alexander