Thailand is considering building a time-saving overland bypass to the Malacca Strait, cutting across the Kra Isthmus in the country’s south with a combination of road and rail projects. An option to build a canal, which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has pushed, appears less likely due to concerns over cost, environmental impact and the possibility that it could become entwined with the PRC’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) scheme.
The Thai government has budgeted about U.S. $320,500 to study the feasibility of both options, the Bangkok Postnewspaper reported September 11, 2020. Thai Transport Minister Saksiam Chidchob advocated for the road-and-rail option in August 2020, saying that dredging a canal across the isthmus, pictured in background, would cause unacceptable environmental damage, Bloomberg reported.
The bypass, Saksiam said, would trim 1,200 kilometers off the distance required to move freight from the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand. A pair of proposed seaports, one on each side of the isthmus, would be linked by the 100-kilometer bypass, he added.
“Over the years, various countries have voiced support for a canal in principle, but no country has ever seriously considered investing in the project because it doesn’t make economic sense,” Ian Storey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told FORUM. “At a time of global recession, it makes even less sense.”
Chinese government strategists saw value in a Kra canal in the early 2000s because it would allow Chinese oil tankers to avoid controls in the Malacca Strait, Storey wrote in a September 2019 essay. Such a canal also would allow Chinese naval vessels to navigate rapidly between newly constructed bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
While a Kra canal is not among Beijing’s OBOR projects, Storey said, the PRC does view Thailand as “a key node in its trillion-dollar global infrastructure project” and “there are constant but unsubstantiated rumors that China might be interested in investing in an artificial waterway through the south of Thailand.”
The Thai public may have lost its appetite for OBOR, however, with the most noteworthy OBOR project in Thailand, a high-speed rail (HSR) network, bogged down by delays, budgetary disputes and operational hiccups, he said.
“Domestically, the HSR has been heavily criticized for its excessive cost, for its lack of transparency and for making Thailand too dependent on China,” he said.
Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.