Thailand ponders digging Kra Isthmus - again!

opinion March 30, 2015 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Natio

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No issue in Thailand's history has generated such a long and inconclusive debate as the one surrounding the fate of Kra Isthmus. For the past 358 years, since the time of King Narai (1633-1688) when it was first raised with France, the desire to dig the c



This time around, the Kra Canal project has been revived with powerful supporters. The Thai-Chinese Culture and Economic Association of Thailand (TCCEAT) has proposed that the National Reform Council (NRC) conduct a feasibility study on linking the Adaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. After the NRC began its deliberation in October last year, the project was quickly tabled.        
Since then it has become one of the most dominant topics but it has been discreetly discussed and heavily lobbied by influential people in and outside the government. One of the 18 NRC committees which oversee the strategies related to agriculture, industry, service, tourism and connectivity is likely to give the green light for the proposed study, which is expected to be completed in just 10 months.
Most of the arguments made by politicians, economists, the military and the strategic community have been focused on two aspects: the economic benefits and the various security implications. It is longer about the cost or obstacles of digging a long canal and the overall environment implications.
All agreed that the financial rewards due to the exponential growth of global trade in the next two decades and beyond will increase many fold with the combined rise of China and India, not to mention Africa’s recent economic growth. The demand for energy will continue to fuel further industrialisation and growth in Asia. These are the reasons used by the supporters pushing for a new shipping route linking the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Since most of the Asian trade transactions are carried out through sea transportation, the Kra Canal would cut costs and reduce the transportation time by two to three days. 
At the moment, the shipping lane through the Malacca Straits is getting congested. Since the September 9/11 tragedy, dangers from pirates, maritime terrorism, accidents and insurance fees have also increased. Alternative shipping routes have been actively sorted for instance in the Northern Arctic circle and Indonesian maritime zone.
The Kra Canal’s proponents believe that the project could be done and would turnaround Thailand’s economic slump and turn the country into a global shipping and economic hub rivalling the Panama Canal, beyond what has been envisaged in the Master Plan of Asean Connectivity (2015). 
As part of the land connectivity, India, Myanmar and Thailand have already built a highway linking the three countries from Manipur, India to Dawei, Myanmar forward to Laem Chabang, Chon Buri which will be completed next year. This network will connect to Laos, Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asian archipelago.
With or without the Kra Canal, through India’s Act East Policy any physical linkages, land or sea, would propel the country’s economic growth along the eastern coast and further modernise economic hinder lands in its northwestern region. For China, alternative transportation routes – safe and secure in a trusted country – are the most imperative and desirable. Doubtless, plenty of Chinese state enterprises and investors are waiting enthusiastically.
However, once the discussion switches to security and strategic aspects, there is a strong psychological cul-de-sac. Unlike the private sector, the Thai security apparatus still views any partition of the Golden Axe (khwan thong) – the shape of Thailand – as unacceptable.
It is quite interesting to stress that the symbolic separation between the mainland and its southern part is more potent than previously suspected when compared to the demand for autonomy in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. Some leading business personalities said that the prospects of economic development and the future peace process could further mitigate the negative impact that is visible today. Increased connectivity and shared prosperity in the future should weaken further the threat of separatism.
Although the views within the Thai armed forces are mosaic, the Thai Royal Navy is much more open about the Kra Canal project. It has conducted several studies on the pros and cons of such an endeavours. Armed with a new maritime doctrine, the Navy is looking for new weapon systems including submarines to increase its maritime defence capacity on the Adaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
The debate over the Kra Isthmus has been going on for such a long period because of concerns influential personalities have in the economic and security areas. This time, the three TCCEAT members leading the debate also belong to the NRC committee that oversees the country’s strategy on connectivity. The high number of feasibility studies involved has also kept the issue alive.
One of the most famous reports was done by a senatorial committee in 1998. It recommended that the Kra canal project should be moved further southward away from Ranong. The proposed 120-kilometre route cutting through the sparsely populated provinces of Krabi, Phatthalung, Nakon Si Thammarat, Songkhla and Trang is still considered the most suitable. It is further away from both the Thai-Myanmar and Thai-Malaysian borders.
Further studies are required on the strategic implications of having a new international shipping hub in a country with a reputation of political uncertainty and turmoil – which could easily turn into a hub of war. 
With heighten major power competition as well as Asean members such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam giving top priority to maritime security, it remains to be seen how this archaic idea will play itself out under the current government and the international community at large.