Chinese won't let Kra canal fade away

Chinese won't let Kra canal fade away

The Kra Canal is probably Thailand's oldest project that never has begun. This artist's conception is from 1999. (File photo)
The Kra Canal is probably Thailand's oldest project that never has begun. This artist's conception is from 1999. (File photo)

It's an old song.

'Hey hey, my my,
The Kra Canal
can never die.
There's more to the picture
Than meets the eye.'

The controversial project has popped up, and popped down, for many years now. That includes this year when the Chinese media reported that Chavalit Yongchaiyudh signed a paper with businessmen in Guangzhou to dig a cross-country waterway. The former prime minister quickly denied the story, saying it was fabricated to damage his reputation.

In October, Prime Minister Prayut Cha-o-cha dismissed a report on CCTV that Beijing was considering a proposal from Bangkok to build a canal across the Kra Isthmus.

All seems to be quiet for now, but it doesn't mean reports like that won't surface again to the delight of Kra Canal supporters and cries of anguish from the opposite camp.

Sooner or later, it will pop back up again for sure. Chinese President Xi Jinping has orchestrated a campaign to build a modern Silk Road to bolster Chinese trade, as well as economic and political influence. It comes under the One Belt, One Road policy.

The two components are a road from Xinjiang province passing through central Asia to eastern Europe and a sea route, which Beijing calls the Maritime Silk Road, which begins from the Chinese coastal province of Fujian through Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean all the way to Africa and Europe.

One Chinese official once called the two routes crucial and complementary elements to turn the Silk Road into a success. "It's like a bird. A bird cannot fly with one wing," said the official, who referred to a road and a sea route as two wings to make the ambitious policy fly high.

If one draws a maritime route on the map, it is clear the shipping lane line would be much more attractive if it had a shortcut.

That is in Thailand, where the southern peninsular from Chumphon down to Satun and Songkhla separates the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.

Building a waterway to link the two sides will save time and money for shippers that now have to steer their ships through the Malacca Strait to Singapore if they are on the way from the Middle East and South Asia to East Asia. Liners will be safer as skippers won't have to worry about pirates as they guide their vessels through the Malaccas.

Kra Canal proponents have tried in vain to see the project born, instead of just being a proposal gathering dust on the shelf.

They point to the benefits to be derived from the Panama Canal-type waterway in southern Thailand, but they get nowhere every time the issue is raised in public. Now the Silk Road project initiated by China is providing outside impetus to keep it alive.

China has not mentioned the Silk Road scheme too much of late because the country has pressing economic problems.

When its economy gets back on track, though, the Chinese president and other leaders in Beijing will revisit this issue and take it seriously once again.

The Maritime Silk Road is probably extra special to Mr Xi, who was once the governor of Fujian before he rose to the heights of power in the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite fitting China's grand plans, the Kra Canal project will probably go the same route. That is, nowhere.

The problem is not money. Funds could easily be mobilised if the government decides to go ahead with the digging of the ditch somewhere in Ranong or Satun. It is not about security worries either. Nor is it about psychological implications, as the authorities have pointed out.

For them, having a canal means the country will be separated into two parts, one from the northern tip of the country down to the edge of the canal, and the other part completely in the southern region.

That is not acceptable to those who see Thailand as an indivisible oneness, not two lands.

Cutting the southern area in two will also have psychological concerns given what is happening in the southernmost provinces where the insurgency to gain a separate state is showing no signs of ending.

The most dangerous part of the project is that it will damage the tourism sector, which relies on beauty of the southern region.

The Kra Canal will not see Thailand in the position to collect fees from ships using the new sea lane while pocketing money from tourism.

It can only be one or the other. And it won't take that much time to conclude which is better.


Saritdet Marukatat is digital media news editor, Bangkok Post.

Saritdet Marukatat

Digital Media News Editor

He is Bangkok Post's Online Editor and is in charge of all online content.

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