Plans to cut a canal through the temptingly narrow Isthmus of Kra in Thailand date back to the 1600s and both British and French engineering teams charted potential routes in the nineteenth century, but ultimately never gained the backing of the Thai kings to start digging.
The Kra Isthmus is just 44 km wide at its narrowest point, connecting the larger northern part of Thailand to the southern peninsula, which borders Malaysia. The canal would connect the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, but despite much speculation and the production of detailed plans, the construction of a canal is not currently favoured by Thai government thanks to a combination of political, environmental and economic factors.
Despite the official line many influential figures in and out of government in Thailand back the building of the Kra Canal and at the same time Beijing is encouraging the Thais to push ahead with the scheme.
China has long desired alternative shipping route to the Straits of Malacca where so much of the country’s merchandise flows headed in and out of China to and from Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
The Straits are the world’s busiest waterway with over 80,000 ships passing yearly. If some of these ships could pass through the Kra canal it would shorten some shipments by 1,200 km saving time and fuel costs as well as reducing the water borne traffic around Singapore.
Any interruption through disaster or even a naval blockade at the Straits would staunch the flow of trade and bring chaos upon the Chinese economy. A significant break in imports in particular would leave China looking highly exposed on its dependence on the Middle East for oil.
This geopolitical calculus means that Beijing has indicated it would back the construction of the Kra canal as part of its Maritime Silk Road which has been instrumental in developing ports across Eurasia and Africa in an effort to encourage regional and international trade.
China’s heavy investment in Pakistan and in particular the development of the Gwadar port which has the potential to transport goods in and out of Western China cutting out a long sea route is one such example.
But building a canal of this magnitude is no easy matter, many in Thailand oppose the scheme as they feel China who have the funds to back the scheme (estimated at USD 20 billion) would then exert to much influence over the country. Others point to the environmental damage a canal would cause, as it would mean cutting through a huge swathe of land, plus the massive amount of pollution caused by thousands of tankers passing by the coast of Thailand every year. All of this would have a negative impact on the lucrative Thai tourist industry.
Many senior Thai political figures feel that the construction of the canal would symbolically split the country worrying the government which is already busy combating militants in its restive Southern region.
Proponents of the project have pointed to the economic benefits, building the canal would involve constructing two huge new bridges, an undersea tunnel as well as port facilities, new towns and an airport. All of this would provide a huge economic boost for Thailand, creating jobs and make it a major shipping hub to rival Singapore.
As well as the economic benefits a canal could give Thailand a new found geopolitical strength depending on how much the Chinese exerted control or ownership over the project, either it way it would certainly draw the ire of Singapore which would see its pivotal position as the sentinel of the Straits of Malacca much diminished.
Indian jitters over Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean would amplify and other regional powers such as Australia and Malaysia would watch warily as the regional balance of power shifted in China’s favour.
Another scenario is that another country, most likely Japan, could step up and back the project, China would not look favourably on this, but it might be more acceptable to others in the region.
Over recent years China has been trying to woo Thailand and other ASEAN countries away from the US, recently it made headway with Malaysia when the 1MDB scandal damaged relations with the US, but the recent shock election result has thrown this into doubt as the new government has promised to look at Chinese relations more critically. The Thai’s like the Malaysians have strong economic ties with the Chinese but are wary of getting too entangled with their northern neighbour.