President Clinton dismissed yesterday the notion that China might seize the Panama Canal and harm national security once the United States cedes control of the canal zone to Panama at the end of the year.

Hutchison Whampoa, a Hong Kong-based company with ties to Beijing, won the right to operate the ports at both ends of the canal, leading some to fear that China might abuse its effective control of the 51-mile canal once the U.S. military pulls out of the area.

"I think the Chinese will in fact be bending over backward to make sure that they run it in a competent and able and fair manner," Clinton said at a news briefing.

"This is like them--is like China coming into the World Trade Organization. I'll think they'll want to demonstrate to a distant part of the world that they can be a responsible partner," he said. "I would be very surprised if any adverse consequences flowed from the Chinese running the canal."

Control of the Panama Canal will pass to Panama on Dec. 31, ending a 96-year U.S. presence.

Earlier this week, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an address to the John Birch Society that China was plotting to take over the canal. He suggested that China could use the area to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.

Clinton said he was confident the Panamanian government would run the canal in an appropriate fashion and reiterated his support of the handover.

Clinton said his decision not to attend the handover to Panama was due to the number of foreign trips he has taken this year and not a snub. Former president Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will head the U.S. delegation to the ceremony.