December 2014, the socialist Ortega government of Nicaragua brought to fruition its courtship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), announcing the most ambitious engineering project in Latin American history: building a trans-oceanic canal across Nicaragua. The proposed canal, at nearly three times the annual shipping capacity of the Panama Canal, would be both designed to secure China’s Naval freedom to navigate across the entire Pacific and into the Atlantic, and yet to also guarantee Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega a windfall in foreign investment, the world’s third superpower as a protector, and a Latin American political identity of anti-American defiance. Without doubt, both emerging Chinese influence and Ortega’s fiery rhetoric combine to severely complicate U.S. options for diplomatic solutions to tensions in the region, but how do they affect options for U.S. military contingency operations in Latin America? If the canal does come to be nothing more than a thinly-disguised People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) power projection project, then Nicaragua will become the most significant flash point for military confrontation with the United States in the Western Hemisphere since the Cuban Missile Crisis. If a Chinese foothold is established in the Americas, then that shifting balance of power would not only require US military planners to reassess their strategic posture in the region, but to assess the possibility of (and then plan for) a proxy war with China in Nicaraguan territory. Currently, the likelihood of such a confrontation in Latin America seems far-fetched at best: in 2012 the Obama administration began its much-touted “pivot to the Pacific” and strategic rebalancing to Asia, making a confrontation in the South China Sea far more plausible; Nicaragua is a poor country with no known aspirations for regional military supremacy, much less taking on the United States; and the Canal is theoretically to be civilian-owned and the PRC government actually not involved in its construction at all. Nonetheless, the prospect of a Chinese carrier battle group transiting the Pacific to the Atlantic via a rival canal operated by an anti-American leftist government less than a decade from now must still beg the question, just what would the Operational Environment look like for US military planners in a post-canal, Sinicized Nicaragua?

Chinese Influence

Chinese influence has spread dramatically throughout Central America since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, and Nicaragua has not been left out. In fact, the Canal’s planned investment into Nicaragua would make all of China’s other Latin American partners blush: a $50 billion trans-oceanic canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans three times the size of the Pmap_nicaragua_canal.pnganama Canal, with a scheduled completion date of 2020. That Nicaragua would court a world-power to build a canal should be no surprise – the United States originally intended to build a canal through the country before being persuaded to choose Panama instead [1].  In the near future, when the Chinese will ostensibly gain a military foothold by completing the Canal, the effect of that fact on every facet of Nicaragua will be so extensive that the Land of Lakes and Volcanos’ politics, its military posture, physical geography, infrastructure and economics all will be permanently altered and set against U.S. influence. In that scenario, The U.S. would find itself militarily challenged by the world’s third superpower in a region it has historically considered its backyard. In place of the United States, the Chinese will then have realized their grand naval ambition for Freedom to Navigate beyond the 2nd Island Chain, the Indian Ocean, the island nations of Melanesia and Polynesia , and all the way to the limit of the Pacific, and into the Atlantic. It is this security context which could make Nicaragua and the immediately-surrounding region a flashpoint for U.S.-Chinese military confrontation.

Politics: the Power of Polemics

Like the relationship to much of the rest of Latin America, U.S. foreign policy toward Nicaragua has historically been a thorny one, often punctuated by incidents of U.S. intervention and meddling in what most would consider purely domestic affairs[2] The America-as-colonizer trope runs rich and deep for Latin American populist leaders, available and evocable at-will any time a fire-brand upstart finds himself in need of a narrative to unite a supporting base and win a presidency. Whether the United States is a straw man or not, would-be Latin leaders can always hack it to death in public to win backing for whatever plans they have in store for their country. Since the indefinite Presidential reelection of Sandinista guerilla leader Daniel Ortega in 2014, the US-Nicaraguan relationship has chilled to the point of antagonism and only enriched that Anti-American diatribe.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (L) stands with Wang Jing, president of of the Chinese company HK Nicaragua Development Gran Canal Interoceanico, during the framework agreement for the construction of the Interoceanic Grand Canal in Managua, on June 14, 2013. Nicaraguan lawmakers approved a controversial deal that would allow a Hong Kong company to build a $40 billion oceanic waterway to rival the Panama Canal, and then manage it for the next 50 years. Environmental activists fear the worst for Lake Nicaragua, which the planned waterway will pass through. AFP/Inti OCON (Photo credit should read Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images)

With President Ortega expected to continually run for office and to continually be elected, (much like his ideological mentor, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who implemented a similar constitutional change in 2009), political considerations within the country are often just questions of the policies and attitudes of Ortega himself. Ortega, in the same mold of the Latin American Populist Revolutionary established by Cuba’s Castro and Che Guevara, has characterized his relationship to the United States as cool at best. With the arrival of the Chinese, Ortega as well as other leaders of Latin America now have a source of Cold War backing and an alternative to US hegemony. Anti-Imperialism has proven a useful narrative for campaign platforms, and now the Chinese can add a cash-infusion to the dynamic – just the medicine for the economic illness to have plagued the region’s other heavyweight anti-American populist leaders (e.g., current Venezuelan President Maduro, or Bolivia’s Evo Morales).

In the run-up to a military confrontation with China in Latin America, U.S. military special operations units (primarily Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, and Special Missions Units) would necessarily need consider how to not antagonize the viable counterweights to Ortega’s personal brand of politics. There are several political lobbyist groups in the country: The National Workers Front (a Sandinista labor union); the Nicaraguan Workers’ Central (an independent labor union); and the Permanent Congress of Workers (a non-Sandinista labor union). Working with, including, and shaping these groups long-before the outbreak of hostilities would be essential for galvanizing popular support against an Ortega-Beijing alliance. One such venue available now, before the completion of the canal and the sinofication of Nicaragua, is also one of the few sources of common ground on which the current US-Nicaraguan political relationship finds itself: anti-narco-trafficking efforts. Currently, Managua gladly accepts the US leading (and paying for) drug interdiction operations in the Caribbean in order to help prevent drug turf wars in Colombia from spilling over into Nicaraguan territory. The Corn Islands in the Caribbean Sea off Nicaragua’s eastern coast currently hosts a heavy presence of United States Naval vessels conducting drug interdiction operations, at the invitation of the Nicaraguan government. While Managua may seemingly feel the same way about any nation that assists[3], bolstering even a tenuous common ground of fighting drug trafficking regularizes continuous US Naval presence in the area. In combination with inclusion of the political lobbyist groups which hold sway with the public, drug interdiction efforts are perhaps the most immediately-establishable beachhead against the Ortega-Beijing alliance prior to the onset of hostilities.

The Physical Environment: engineered discord

The Canal will cause irreparable damage to Nicaragua’s fresh water supply. Lake Nicaragua is the largest fresh water body in Central America, providing the majority of drinking water for Nicaragua’s major cities (all concentrated in the western plain surrounding the lake). However, to build the canal, the massive lake will need be dredged 25-30 meters using dynamite. Furthermore, the lake is well above sea level, requiring the building of locks on either side of the lake.  Lock zones are notorious for pollution from discharged ballast water and invasive species, from spilt diesel fuels, waste runoff from industrializing the area, and from lost cargo. Next, the proposed route exiting Lake Nicaragua and traversing the countries eastern tributaries to the Caribbean Sea would necessarily mean damaging the island of Ometepe, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and also cause damage to the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve.

Finally, the communities living an agrarian-based existence along the proposed path of the canal stand to lose their land and their livelihood when the Canal comes ripping through their homes. With an endangered water supply and a threat to tens of thousands of famers’ means of support, US military planners (particularly the Special Operations community) would be wise to recognize that Nicaragua has a rich history of armed struggle over land-use rights; farmer disenfranchisement has already antagonized social unrest canal-protestand popular disapproval of the Ortega Government due to the canal, and is only expected to increase as the Canal dispossess more and more Nicaraguans of their land. Hence, a foreign power seeking to develop alternative centers of gravity in Nicaraguan society would naturally have two intertwined objectives for securing domestic support during a military confrontation: 1) deliver a reliable source of clean, fresh water for human consumption and agrarian use, and 2) effectively leverage and lens the sense of disenfranchisement among the agrarian dispossessed. The entity which achieves those two objectives would have a very powerful card to play in Nicaraguan affairs.

The Economics of Infrastructure

Aside from the Canal itself, Nicaragua has several infrastructure constraints which, were they to continue to persist unaddressed and undeveloped, would profoundly influence the Operational Environment the United States found itself in after 2020 and on the road to war with China. First, there is only one major, well-maintained Main Supply Route in Nicaragua – the Pan-American Highway. The highway expands to multiple lanes near some large towns and cities, but is mostly 2-lane and bidirectional from the border with Honduras to the border with Costa Rica. During the rainy season, from April-November with an average rainfall 9-14 inches per month, the country’s remaining unimproved, dirt, and jeep track roads pose a significant hindrance to ground transportation. As all modern military campaigns require regular and reliable logistic operations, control of the Pan-American highway would be a key objective for all parties involved in a conflict.

Nicaragua suffers from severe structural problems economically, which have in turn spread to deteriorating infrastructure – the country cannot reliably produce electricity and pump clean drinking water . As a result, Nicaragua has remained the poorest country in Central America. That limited investment into infrastructure can be explained by several factors: risks to the labor market due to low education levels (e.g., the Nicaraguan Army only requires a 6th-grade education to join); another is legal risk due to an unreliable judicial system, itself more closely aligned with political factions that with robust, objective judicial processes.

That infrastructure and economics are linked should come as no surprise to observers of the rhetoric to emerge describing the assumed benefits of building the canal. According to the government in Managua, the canal will bring upwards of 250,000 jobs to the impoverished nation; detractors put those estimates much lower at approximately 25,000 construction jobs for Nicaraguans and 25,000 more for Chinese workers. Either number has the potential to siphon off a sizable workforce from traditional employment and redistribute them to worksites across the country; during the construction of the canal, such employment would be a virtue. However, after the canal were completed, anywhere from 25,000-250,000 Nicaraguans would be suddenly out of work. For the city-raised young people who gave up higher education in their teens in exchange for the boom-time paychecks during the canal’s construction, there would likely be no immediate alternative employment available at any level of the economic value chain once the canal was finished.

For the farming population which abandoned (or were forced off of) their land in order to supply the cheap, unskilled labor required to build the canal, the completion of such a colossal project would similarly leave them with little land to return home to, and little skill with which to launch a new, urban-dwelling life. Short term infrastructure projects always increase the annual gross domestic product, but they don’t always ensure sustainable growth for the future. Hence, military operations in Nicaragua (especially those conducted after the cessation of kinetic strikes but before any permanent conclusion to hostilities) would quickly mirror counter-insurgency and nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where key planners would be challenged to ensure growth and stability for the common people as a way of combating both Chinese influence and aid to pro-Ortega forces.

Sea-Battle and the Paramilitary

As China’s $50 billion canal investment secures a transit route for its proposed fleet of Aircraft Carriers into the Atlantic, so does it draw closer the countries of Central America into its protective umbrella and create neo-vassal states. On its own, the Nicaraguan military poses very little threat conventionally to the United States. Its equipment is moribund: as of 2014, its active duty force number just 16,000 personnel; it possesses 84 tanks, 21 aircraft and 17 helicopters, and 8 coastal defense craft. It is the Chinese PLAN which instead would occupy the majority of US military planner’s attention. The canal itself will be so large it will accommodate even the Triple-E Maersk line of mega-containerships, which come in at over 400 meters wide, 69 meters in length, and a draft of 15.2 meters deep. Such passable dimensions ensure the canal is large enough to accommodate every ship in the PLA Navy fleet, including its only aircraft carrier (currently), the Liaoning. The canal proposal also includes building ports on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the route, ensuring that by 2020 the whole of the PLA Navy will have ports of call in the Western hemisphere in two oceans.

On land and outside of the uniformed Nicaraguan and Chinese military forces, the country’s security situation also features a paramilitary aspect in the form of private security businesses. Currently the country has 140 police-authorized companies employing over 100,000 personnel to provide security services.  Services range from basic uniformed guard security to advanced threat, security and risk analysis cells serving enterprise-level customers. Nicaragua, despite being the poorest country in Central America, is the safest. With only 18 policemen for every 10,000 people (Panama for comparison has a 50:10,000 ratio), those additional security services are vital to the function of the state. Without their support, Ortega’s power base would diminish while the average Nicaraguan’s quality of life would deteriorate. How to keep those security forces employed and at least neutral during a proxy war with China would be a consistent challenge for the U.S. military, but would likely draw inspiration from the U.S.-led coalition in post-Saddam Iraq when it deftly handled the Sunni Awakening and channeled the Sons of Iraq to facedown Al Qaeda militants. U.S. dollars earmarked for the payrolls of privatized security forces would positively shape the human terrain in favor of U.S. objectives in Nicaragua.


The final aspect of the Operational Environment within which U.S. military planners would potentially find themselves in military confrontation with the PRC in Nicaraguan territory is the issue of time, or more appropriately, the issue of timing. First consider that the Canal’s estimated completion date is 2020, an ambitious goal to say the least. For comparison, China’s three gorges dam – one of the largest engineering projects in world history – took twenty years to complete, and it was achieved entirely on Chinese territory, built on the low cost of Chinese labor, and benefitted from the meteoric rise of the Chinese economy. For the Nicaraguan Canal, if there are any significant delays due to financing, natural disasters, or internal political struggle in either country, then the timeline for completion could easily be pushed to the right. The question would then be, by how much. This is where the issue of timing becomes important. Current Chinese President Xi Jinping will step down in 2022, making way for the Sixth Generation of Chinese leadership (by unofficial convention, all born in the 1960’s). Whomever emerges as the paramount power of this generation will inherit a military vastly superior to the current one; the PLA Navy intends to have four conventional and two nuclear powered aircraft carriers fully operational and deployed by 2025. Thus, if the Nicaragua Canal exceeds its timeline for completion by more than two years, it is possible that all three factors will occur within three years of each other: the inauguration of new political leadership intent on maximizing the interests of the Chinese state, the opening of the Nicaragua Canal, and the fielding of China’s sixth Aircraft Carrier. All of these development would be occurring right around the time that Washington D.C. comes to a complete halt for 18-24 months preparing for the 2024 presidential election. If hyper-partisanship continues to flourish (and there’s no reason at this time to assume that it won’t), then Congress’ political gridlock, bickering and refusal to compromise with the White House will give the PRC a wide, attractive opening for establishing a Far Pacific Fleet and a new status quo right under Washington’s nose.


An outbreak of hostilities would not likely occur upon the PLA Navy’s first arrival in Nicaraguan ports. Rather, it is more likely Beijing would try to establish a new normal, regularizing port calls and routine drills up and down the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Latin America before every attempting to directly confront the United States Navy. It is difficult and perhaps a fool’s errand to attempt pinpointing how soon after the completion of the Nicaraguan Canal that confrontation would occur. At all times before, during, and after the canal’s construction, the U.S. military will still have at its disposal a wide variety of options for dealing with a PLA Navy threat, but after the first passage of a Chinese Carrier Battle Group through the canal and into the Atlantic, the US will have to face that threat in an Operational Environment radically different from that which exists today and in a battle space uncomfortably close to the U.S. mainland.




[1] At the time, US Senators were briefed and convinced that Nicaragua’s 40 active volcanos posed such a threat to sea shipment that the investment would be lost to natural disaster long before the canal ever became profitable.

[2] Of historic note: American adventurer William Walker declares himself President of Nicaragua in 1856, legalizes Slavery, and invites the United States to annex the country; 1907 US Warships take possession of the Fonseca Gulf; 1910 U.S. Troops use military force to impose a puppet government in Nicaragua; 1914 Bryan-Chamorro treaty pays Nicaragua $3million in exchange for the right to build a trans-oceanic canal, control the Corn Islands, and establish a naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca. Guerrilla war against the United States launched; 1927-34 the Second Guerilla War against the United States results in US expelled from country; 1934 United States masterminds plot to assassinate Nicaraguan revolutionary hero Augusto Sandino; 1936-1979 Somoza dictatorship propped up by United States – dictatorship attacks Costa Rica (1948) and Guatemala (1954); dictatorship allows United States to launch Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba from Nicaragua’s Puerto Cabezas; 1980-88 United States funds the Contra war against the socialist Sandinista government. The war costs 60,000 lives and $178 billion Dollars.

[3]In 2014 Russia and Nicaragua carried out joint drug interdiction naval exercises in the Atlantic. That the Russian Navy would be concerned with drug trafficking routes into the United States in the Atlantic and Caribbean, nowhere near Russia, does not pass the common sense test, and instead suggests that the joint exercise was more politically motivated than anything more tangible. From that context then, it is symmetrically arguable that the same common ground between the US and Nicaragua fighting the drug war is also just a politically motivated charade than anything of real substance to ameliorate latent US-Nicaraguan animosities