China’s ambitious One Belt One Road initiative has become one of President Xi Jinping’s most sought after plan after it was enshrined in the Chinese constitution during the 19th CPC National Congress. Adding to series of projects under OBOR in South Asia and South East Asia, China now seeks to help Thailand in one of its grand projects of building the Kra canal – a long-envisioned channel through the country’s southern isthmus that would connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans and dramatically shorten East-West shipping routes. The plan first envisioned by King Narai in 1677 could not become reality due to several practical issues related to the project including political and security concerns, as well as existential fear of physically dividing the nation into two.
However, this time backed by powerful pro-canal lobbyists in Thailand, the project has substantial support from China, who sees the project as an as strategic hedges to its Malacca vulnerability, including facilities in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar’s now violence-wracked western Rakhine state, through which China has built oil and gas pipelines.
Secondly, the canal once built would save approximately 1,200 kilometers from current East-West shipping routes that currently must travel through the congested Malacca Strait, the world’s busiest maritime area where an estimated 84,000 ships and around 30% of global trade currently passes each year. For china, whose 80% of China’s fuel imports currently pass through the Malacca Strait, a maritime bottleneck running between Malaysia and Indonesia, it will provide an alternative trade route.
Chinese ambassador to Bangkok, Lyu Jian in recent high-level meetings said that China envisions the Thai canal as part of its US$1 trillion ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) global infrastructure initiative. China aims to link the initiative with the Thai junta’s Eastern Economic Corridor industrial, logistical and real estate development plan, including via a long-stalled high-speed rail line connecting the two nations via Laos. Many Analysts however are skeptical about the viability of the project, even with all the Chinese funding.
General Saiyud Kerdphol, the military engineer of Thailand’s winning Cold War-era anticommunism campaign, believes that even the US would like to support such project for the logistical benefits to regional trade and as a long-time ally committed to Thailand’s development. Similar view was shared by a senior independent analyst from the US, who thinks, if the canal is built, it would merely mean that the US Navy would have two strategic chokepoints, rather than just one, to block in a potential conflict with China.
Most importantly, the canal’s Thai advocates are also keen to build a multinational coalition of backers and funders to prevent any one country, namely China, from having inordinate leverage over the channel and its related port facilities. What the advocates of the canal want is Thai company, not Chinese company to lead the project. Others are also looking at the alternative development model- a recent multilateral funding for expansion of the Panama Canal, with support from Germany, Spain, South Korea, US, Argentina and Mexico, among others.
The project has sparked certain interest among the multinational companies, who feel the plan would allow several nations to participate in building various infrastructure projects. However, it remains to be seen how the final prints of the projects will unfold as the junta’s political troubles mount and with an uncertain democratic transition on the horizon, such a monumental undertaking isn’t likely to win government support any time soon.