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In the middle of August, Thai transport minister Saksayam Chidchob 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.
What is ‘Kra Canal’?
- 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.
- Kra canal also known as Thai canal or Kra isthmus canal is a proposed canal to connect Gulf of Thailand (formerly known as Gulf of Siam) with Andaman Sea.
- Exiting the Kra Canal westwards, traffic would enter the Andaman Sea, transit past India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and then head south towards the Chinese-owned port at Hambantota, in Sri Lanka.
- 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. Strait of Malacca is the world’s busiest maritime lane, through which an estimated 84,000 ships carrying around 30 per cent of global trade transit each year.
- 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.
What is the new proposal by Thailand?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.