In the middle of August, Thai transport minister Saksayam Chidchob, in an interview to Bloomberg News, said that Thailand was considering a road and railway link across the narrow tract of land in the south of the country, which has been the proposed site for building the Kra canal. In its aftermath, Indian media reports said that plans for the Kra canal had been called off and that it was a step back for the Chinese. Most of these reports linked the “retraction” of the proposal to build the canal to India’s border tensions with China, erroneously implying a connection between the two.
The statement by the transport minister referred to the possibility of building two ports in Chumphon and Ranong and connecting them through a network of overland linkages. This was in no way a reiteration of the end of the canal; it was more likely an addition to the canal, which has issues of sovereignty and environmental hazards linked to it. A deeper look at the geopolitics in the region and the political situation in Thailand currently will clearly reveal that the proposal is not “dead and gone”, but like several of the earlier efforts, is still in limbo.
The Isthmus of Kra, the region in question, is the narrowest strip of land in the Malay peninsula. For nearly two and a half centuries, attempts have been made to build a canal connecting the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Historically, this canal was pushed by the French and as colonial expansion took shape, the Siamese (modern day Thailand) rulers ensured two important outcomes—first, Thailand remained independent from colonial rule and second, Britain’s focus on retaining the primacy of Singapore as the most important trading centre triumphed over the efforts to build the canal.
The question of the Kra canal has been discussed almost since 1993. Much of its relevance has to do with increased shipping movement in the Straits of Malacca. The reason behind the proposed canal was to reduce the dependence on the Straits by connecting the Indian and the Pacific Oceans through an alternative route. Additionally, this would also reduce the travel time and eliminate the necessity of going around the Malay peninsula, a distance of nearly 1,200 kilometres.
At first glance, the question of Kra seems simple enough—just an alternate route—but within the deepening geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific region, the canal will significantly contribute to the existing stresses among the major powers and within groupings like the ASEAN itself. Increasingly, as the global economic engine has shifted to the east, the Indian and Pacific Oceans have come under greater focus. Both China and India are rising economic powers, notwithstanding the current downturn globally as a result of the pandemic.
As such, these countries are dependent on energy resources from West Asia, which necessitates an uninterrupted supply. Geopolitically, as Chinese assertions in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions have increased, there is also greater vulnerability for the country, especially in terms of its overwhelming dependence on the Straits of Malacca. Former Chinese president Hu Jintao had earlier coined the term “Malacca Dilemma”, which was a reference to China’s overarching reliance on the Straits, causing vulnerabilities in terms of its ability to access the seas and transport its goods and energy supplies.
As Beijing seeks to increase its relevance through projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the emphasis on alternatives to the Straits of Malacca will lead to an increase in its efforts to leverage the countries of Southeast Asia. It is in this specific context that the dilemma of the Kra canal comes into question. Thai domestic politics in recent months has witnessed serious protests against the current government. The position of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is currently under attack as Thai student organisations have taken to the streets to protest the alleged role of the government in the disappearance and killings of dissidents.
One of the key challenges, at this time, is the issue of constitutional change: the protestors have been demanding changes to the constitution, especially alteration of the role that has been provided to the military in it. Since 2014, Prime Minister Chan-ocha, in his public pronouncements, has oscillated between the two positions of rejecting and supporting the Kra canal proposal, an indication of the dilemma that Thailand’s political establishment faces on this.
The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was not in favour of the canal, especially because of the issues linked to Thailand’s sovereignty. The current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, however, has been urged to consider the proposal and there has been no rejection of the plan yet. Thailand is clearly emphasising the importance of completing the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) and is seeing it as a potential link to the BRI, which has already pushed for a rail link between Thailand and Laos. While there are murmurs about potential refusals and withdrawals across the region with regards to the BRI, it is important to recognise and understand that each country will seek to leverage its maximum benefits. Thailand will be no exception and the dilemma “to build or not to build” will continue.
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi