March 18th, 2009 - by Chris Devonshire-Ellis
The Kra Canal Project, which would link the South China Sea directly to the Indian Ocean by cutting across the Thai isthmus, has shown recent signs of being reactivated given the economic benefits it would bring to the region as well as the continuing problems with piracy in the Straits of Malacca and the current route for trade to and from India and South–East Asia to China.
The canal, which was first recognized as a potential for boosting trade in 1677, would have the same impact on South-East Asia as the Panama and Suez Canals have had elsewhere. The canal would need to traverse a length of only 44 kilometers at the narrowest point of the Thai peninsula, however with rocky land of up to 75 meters above sea level; the engineering and labor requirements would be huge.
China, not surprisingly, has offered to lend considerable assistance to the development of the project, which was tentatively approved by the Thai Senate in 2007. The project is currently stalled due to “environmental concerns”, however, this is largely interpreted as meaning political wrangling over the project, which has plenty of detractors. Two major voices of dissent are the Singapore Government, who would stand to lose their preeminent position as a shipping hub for South-East Asia, and the previous Bush administration in the United States, who’s then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld showed concern about the plan amidst growing concern of developing Chinese influence in the region.
The cost of the project is estimated at US$20 billion, and would take ten years to complete, with some 30,000 workers being involved. The project would also compliment the Highway 44 overland route, which links the West and East coasts of Thailand, and has currently been stalled with some 50 kilometers to go at either end - a victim of the recent political turmoil in Thailand. However, with domestic politics apparently heading for smoother waters and the previous Bush regime now out of the way, the Kra Canal project is certain to come back into public view, and with South-East nations keen to develop trade with China, the project looks certain to come back to the drawing board.
I love stories like this. The Kra Canal scheme has been in the works for hundreds of years.
During the British Empire era, if I remember my history correctly, the Brits threatened to invade Thailand if they ever went through with it, because they wanted shipping to go through Singapore.
I think every treaty Siam/Thailand signed with Britain had a stipulation about never developing the Kra Canal.
I am not a logistics expert, but you have to wonder where the financial payback is, especially if trains and highways will be eventually developed across Asia.
Who would get the toll money? Thailand or China? Who will defend it? Thailand doesn't have the military capabilities to defend its southern flank or the canal. The generals and admirals are too busy engaging in politics, stealing money and engaging in dodgy business dealings.
It might be part of China's strategic military plan. I am not a military expert either, though it seems China's participation in this seems consistent with its Go South policy. It is also interesting that cut off point for the Kra Isthmus is the same place where the Buddhist North is separated from the Muslim South.
Thailand should tread carefully and learn the lessons of the Panama Canal. It may not want a Chinese owned and operated militarized canal on its territory.