A Platonic Love: Kra Canal and Dream of China

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU, who graduated from Boğaziçi University in 2016, started his master’s education at Karabük University, Institute of Social Sciences, Department of International Relations in 2020. KOYUNCU, who is currently writing a thesis on the US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region, speaks advanced English.

In our contemporary world, controlling and ruling the sea is one of the fundamental factors regarding being a hegemon power in international relations. This fact has to be understood by states which desire to control trade and geography and security. The 70/80/90 rule, which is part of the world reality states that seas and oceans encompass 70% of the Earth’s area, that 80% of people live near coasts, and that 90% of all world commodities go by water.

Considering the 70/80/90 rule from these points of view, controlling sea lines of communication and maritime chokepoints play a vital role in global trade. We all witnessed the Ever Given tanker’s recent blockade of the Suez Canal and the vulnerability of maritime chokepoints. Even if this blockage happened as the result of an accident, states want to feel secure with controlling strategic geography that trade and energy came via choke point.

Thanks to China’s reform and opening-up policy based on an export-oriented economy, which leads to unique economic growth, Beijing has reached remarkable success in the international arena, especially, with the Belt and Road (BRI) project, one of the most game changer and gigantic efforts. A significant part of China’s grand strategy since the beginning of BRI has ensured trade and energy routes that take an active role in China’s rise. In this sense, to solve the “Malacca Dilemma” coined in 2003 by then-president Hu Jintao has been on agenda to create new routes against the lack of alternatives and vulnerability to a naval blockade. Without any doubt, the most influential way to avoid the Malacca Dilemma is to build a new canal which is already considered “the Kra Canal”, also known as “the Thai Canal” ensuring an alternative shipping route.

The Kra Canal project which become an issue between Great Britain and France for hegemony in the past has come to the fore as a geographic superiority between China and U.S. Historically, the idea of this canal could be attributed to the time the late 1670s, when King Narai, the Siamese ruler, proposed a canal that would connect the country’s east and west coasts. However, owing to political and economic restrictions at the time, the plan could not be applied.[1] At present, Canal proposed to be constructed through Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra or other nearby locations in Thailand, can increase the country’s energy security and offer China to reduce the dependency of Malacca Strait which is controlled by the U.S. As a matter of fact, China has already started plans that aim to bypass Malacca by establishing The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and China-Myanmar Crude Oil Pipeline.

Even if these two-project help Beijing with regards to the security of energy and trade, in the case that Kra Canal route open as a new chokepoint, it makes a huge impact by providing an alternative route cutting approximately 650 nautical miles and 2 to 3 days from a journey through the Strait of Malacca.[2]

However, there are some challenges and obstacles to consider for realizing this mega project. Firstly, the political concern is one of the main drawbacks for the barrier of it. One-third of Thai residents reject this initiative as well as the majority of ASEAN countries, including Malaysia and Singapore, are likewise opposed to this proposal. In addition, the potential risk of being caught between Beijing and Washington must be noted significantly. The second challenge is a security issue. With the becoming real of the canal, Thailand will be divided into two (south-north) parts which carry some risks according to geography, transportation within the country and separatist movements. Thirdly; considering the environmental impacts of this mega project and its unique tourism industry, it is highly possible that Thailand will affect adversely because of the canal project. World Travel and Tourism Council expressed that tourism contributed to approximately 6 million jobs in Thailand. Finally, even if there is unagreed cost of the canal and constructed time, it is expected that will take between 5-10 years and will cost estimated between USD 28-36 billion.[3] However, this situation may be seen as an insignificant issue in the eyes of China which has funds and technological capability and try to enrich navy routes for protecting its sea lines of communication. In this sense, Beijing with economic power may turn this project from fantasy to reality. As a matter of fact, it took a serious step for this aim.

In 2015, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by Asia Union Group and China-Thailand Kra Infrastructure Investment and Development (KTKIID) in Guangzhou.[4] Guo Yi, chairman of the KTKIID, said that “China’s infrastructure in Thailand will help to advance the “One Belt, One Road” initiatives, and to bring economic benefits to Thailand.” [5] However, they were both China and Thailand Governments disclaimed any official bilateral agreement on the Kra Canal. After a year, a group of retired Thai generals established the Thai Canal Association for Study and Development (TCASD) and cooperated with scholars from Beijing’s Peking University and a Chinese business to search path for the Kra Canal.[6]

Apart from China, Thailand was also seen as more wishful to realize this project is beginning. Especially, after the 2014 coup, Beijing was a suitable actor for Thailand Monarch who had to consolidate its power and need foreign direct investment. This is because the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) has published Thailand’s twenty-year National Strategy in 2018 which emphasizes the importance of global connectivity initiatives.

Yet, the concept of a sea passage linking the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea was rejected by the government in 2020.[7] The dream of a Kra Canal has turned into a Thai Land Bridge Project that will have road and railway networks to transport goods. Without any doubt, hesitations of the Thai Government about refusing the project are clear: It does not want to deteriorate relations with the United States and the countries of the region, fearing the dept trap diplomacy which has been highlighted since Donald Trump’s administration about Belt and Road Project, uncertain issues such as environment and future of tourism and separatist movement arising from the south.

Maritime trade routes that have played a vital role for countries throughout the centuries are going to preserve their importance. Indo-pacific region with growing economic, demographic, and political weight has been gaining magnitude as a key region in shaping the international order and power struggle. In this sense, either building Kra Canal or the Thai land bridge will represent Beijing’s economic power and political prestige in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region and reduce its dependence on Malacca Strait.

However, even if the canal dream currently rejected and also was not applied in the period of the past government of Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra that were taken down by military coup, the construction plan will continue within Thailand Parliament and the goal of China.

[1] Prachi Bhardwaj, “The Kra Canal Conundrum”, Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India,15(2), p148.

[2]  Mikhail Voytenko, “Kra Canal Project and Unbiased Approach”, Fleet Mon, https://www.fleetmon.com/maritime-news/2017/20547/kra-canal-project-and-unbiased-approach/, (Date of Accession: 16.10.2021).

[3] Ibid; Lamp Peng Er, “Thailand’s Kra Canal Proposal and China’s Maritime Silk Road: Between Fantasy and Reality?”, Asian Affairs: An American Review.

[4] Lee Hong Liang, “Thailand, China Sign Agreement to Construct a New Strategic Kra Canal”, Seatrade Maritime, https://www.seatrade-maritime.com/asia/thailand-china-sign-agreement-construct-new-strategic-kra-canal,(Date of Accession: 16.10.2021).

[5] “China Denies Role in Proposed Thailand Canal Project”, Global Times, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/922555.shtml, (Date of Accession: 16.10.2021).

[6] William Mellor, “Influential Thais in Push for Kra Canal Project”, Nikkei Asia, https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Influential-Thais-in-push-for-Kra-Canal-project2, (Date of Accession: 16.10.2021).

[7] Shaun Cameron, “By Land or Sea: Thailand Perseveres with the Kra Canal”, Lowy Institute, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/land-or-sea-thailand-perseveres-with-kra-canal, (Date of Accession: 25.10.2021).

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