If the transoceanic canal gets the go-ahead, it might take a decade to build, gobble $60 billion and slice through vast stretches of tropical forest. At 180 miles, it would be more than three times the length of the US-built Panama Canal. It also would accommodate supertankers and giant container ships that are far bigger than those the Panama Canal will accept when its expansion is complete next year.
For China, the plan would mean easier access to crude oil from Venezuela and a greater foothold in the Western Hemisphere. Such geopolitical considerations may weigh more for China than the price tag.
"In the initial scenarios we looked at, you can see that up to a million people could be employed within the 10-year span of construction," said Manuel Coronel Kautz, an engineer who heads the Transoceanic Grand Canal Authority of Nicaragua.
Coronel said that 300 to 400 professionals - including teams of Chinese geologists, British environmental experts and other foreign technicians and trade experts - were working on a gamut of financial, environmental and commercial feasibility studies.
There are already 18,000 TEUs cargo ships being built, while container ships of the near future may well be as large as 30,000 TEUs. Built from scratch, a Nicaragua canal could be far better equipped to handle the new seaborne giants.
The Nicaragua canal could start construction late in 2014 and complete by 2019.
"It is said that without the canal, we'll grow at 4.5 percent a year until 2020," said Kamilo Lara, an environmentalist and supporter of Ortega. "But with the canal, growth could be as high as 15 percent."
Awestruck by Wang's influence and the displays of pomp on the trip, several Nicaraguans said they'd concluded China that itself is interested in the Nicaraguan canal.
"It made us all think: It's a go," Vargas said.
Whether the canal is built may hinge on factors other than the difficulty of construction, the expense or the environmental impact. Rather, experts said it might depend on China's reaction to Washington's military "pivot" toward the Far East, and whether China sees an imperative to open a trade route to the Americas for Venezuelan crude and other raw materials that isn't dependent on access to the Panama Canal, which it sees as under Washington's domination.
China has never believed that the Panama Canal and the Panama Canal Authority are independent of US influence, said R. Evan Ellis, the author of the 2009 book China in Latin America. "There's a certain value to having their own canal," he said.
The upgrade project of the Panama Canal is experiencing some delays. The upgraded and enlarged Panama canal is now expected to open in July 2015.