Will new plans for Kra Canal fizzle out again?
ON MAY 14, a report on the signing of a memorandum of understanding between China and Thailand on the Kra Canal appeared in the Guangdong-based Southern Daily. The news quickly attracted widespread attention.
The Kra Canal is a planned waterway cutting through the Kra Isthmus in southern Thailand.
Sources said the two-way canal would be 102km long, 400m wide and 20m deep. It would take 10 years and US$28 billion (S$38 billion) to build.
If unconventional construction methods such as nuclear technology were used, it could be built in seven years, but the cost would increase to US$36 billion.
If the canal is completed, it will allow ships to sail directly from the Gulf of Thailand, which is part of the Pacific Ocean, to the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean.
They would no longer need to pass by the Malay Peninsula while using the narrow and more dangerous Strait of Malacca, which is infested with pirates.
The travelling distance would be reduced by at least 1,200km and travel time would be cut by two to five days.
Such a canal obviously fits the "one road, one belt" initiative promoted by China recently.
The initiative focuses on building economic and development links between countries and regions in Asia and Europe, and consists of two main components: the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road.
What is more important for China is that it would be able to break out of what is called its "Malacca dilemma".
The dilemma stems from the location of Singapore, the strongest ally of the United States in the region, at a chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca, where US warships could dock and use bases.
As a result, should there be a crisis, the US can block off the Strait of Malacca, and China would have no way to respond.
But if the canal is built and China is the controlling party in the project, the situation might be different.
That was why, when the Kra Canal news broke, it was widely reported and analysed for days by the media including those in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
But interestingly, the US media was silent on it, which seemed a bit strange.
On May 19, the Chinese official news agency Xinhua filed a report from Bangkok, saying that the Chinese Embassy in Thailand had responded to the Kra Canal news.
"We took note of the news about the Kra Isthmus. According to what we know at the Chinese Embassy in Thailand, the Chinese government so far is not involved in any study connected to the project nor involved in any specific cooperation. It also has not announced any position on this issue," Xinhua quoted the embassy as saying.
The statement issued through Xinhua is an official denial of rumours.
In fact, the canal is a century-old trite issue, and has been brought up now and then to create a stir, like a recooked dish.
Often, the issue was intentionally hyped up by certain parties for their own interests.
SMASHING SINGAPORE'S RICE BOWL
The first man to propose the Kra Canal concept was the most revered king in Thai history - King Chulalongkorn or Rama V - and that was in the 19th century.
The idea was a great initiative but Thailand, being a weak country then, was not able to implement it and had to leave it as a dream on paper.
During World War II, Thailand became the ally of Japan, which planned to invest in the construction of the Kra Canal as it had ambitions extending to the Indian Ocean.
However, after the Pacific War broke out, the situation took a drastic turn and Japan, with its hands full and unable to spare the resources, had to put the plan aside.
In the 1970s, Japan, whose economy was then booming, raised the Kra Canal issue again.
Its aim was to shorten what to it was of paramount importance - the route for the shipping of oil to East Asia which, without the canal, is much longer. But nothing definite materialised.
It was said that the US and Singapore went all out to block the plan.
To the US, stationing troops in Singapore and controlling the Strait of Malacca are certainly top strategic options.
As for Singapore, the reason for opposition is even more obvious, as the opening of the Kra Canal would end its domination of the shipping routes running to and from the Strait of Malacca.
This is the equivalent of smashing its rice bowl, as it has depended on the strait for livelihood.
In 2004, the old dish that was the Kra Canal issue was "stir-fried" again, and the cook was then Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was running for re-election.
He had proposed a plan to make Thailand Asia's oil centre in five years, and made the canal a priority.
At that time, Thailand and Japan also set up a team to jointly study the canal project's feasibility.
However, Thailand's top ruling class, military and opposition were lukewarm and even resistant to the idea, believing that Thaksin had thrown it up only for the purpose of winning votes in the 14 provinces of southern Thailand.
The Thai people were also divided over the plan at that time, with only 30 per cent supporting it and those against it exceeding 40 per cent.
In addition, Japan, on which Thaksin rested his hopes, went into a prolonged recession, forcing him to shelve the idea.
Another reason why the proposal could not fly is that the political situation in southern Thailand is unstable, with serious separatist tendencies in the southernmost provinces of Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, where most residents are Malay Muslims.
The Thai government is worried that if the Kra Canal is completed, it would in effect isolate the four provinces from the Thai hinterland and the political situation would be even harder to manage.
That is why Bangkok has always assumed a cautious and conservative position regarding the Kra Canal.
A NEW PROBLEM?
In 2006, a China-Asean commemorative summit was held in China's Nanning city, and the Kra Canal was discussed at the event.
As China's economy was beginning to rise at that time and its dependence on overseas energy and raw materials had increased substantially, many Chinese believed the canal would not only shorten the shipping routes to China, but also help reduce transport costs and risks.
China could also avoid the chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca.
Therefore, China should actively push for it, they said.
Since then, rumours about China's involvement in the canal's construction have emerged now and then, and every time that has happened, it would cause some movement in the related stocks.
It is still not clear whether the latest news about the canal is yet another fiction.
But it is debatable whether the canal really has that many economic and strategic advantages for China.
According to some studies, as the canal is to be built on Thai soil, and given that Thailand and the US enjoy close military ties, China might be able to break out of the "Malacca dilemma" by building the canal, only to be trapped in the "Kra Canal dilemma".
This article appeared in the latest edition of the Hong Kong-based Chinese weekly Yazhou Zhoukan, and was translated by My Paper's Larry Teo.