How Realistic Is The Prospect Of The Thai Canal?

The idea for the Thai Canal, most commonly referred to as the Kra Canal, has been knocking around for quite some time. In fact, it was first proposed way back in 1677. The proposed canal route would be constructed across the Kra Isthmus, south west Thailand, which is short geographically (27 miles) but has challenging mountainous terrain.

The Kra Canal would link the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea, cutting out the longer route along the narrow Strait of Malacca that runs between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. This would lead to less congestion and faster trade routes between China and Japan.

Currently, a highway has been partially constructed across the proposed route, but it does not yet stretch from coast to coast. At various points, plans have been put forward for a canal, only to fall by the wayside for economic, political, or geographic reasons. As recently as 2020, the Thai Government again dismissed the plans as unworkable. 

The latest twist comes from the Chinese government however, as The Maritime Executive reports. The latest proposals are for a ‘land bridge’ that would be less environmentally damaging and potentially faster to construct than a canal. If it were to go ahead, it would cut some 650 nautical miles from the passage of the Strait of Malacca. 

China has an invested interest in the scheme, because 80% of their energy imports pass through the Strait of Malacca, and China also supplies oil to Japan via this shipping route. They would benefit from reduced transport costs and faster supply chains. 

However, as the blockage of the Suez Canal route last year proved, relying on one single and narrow route, whether across land or sea, also carries risks. The Seatrade Maritime News also points out that if the Kra Canal were to be built, it would not be recognised under the law as a strait used for international trade, and would be subject to transit fees.

Supporters of the Thai canal scheme point out the way that the Suez and Panama Canals have strengthened international trade by shortening trade routes between Europe and Asia. They argue that by reducing the voyage time around southeast Asia by two to five days, the region would prosper from increased economic growth.

It is projected that any such scheme to build either a canal or a land bridge would take at least five to ten years, so this is very much a long term investment. However, potentially 30,000 people could be employed during the construction phase, bringing in extra economic stimulation to the region.

Any future plans are still very much at the drawing board stage. However, the Strait of Malacca is currently the world’s second busiest shipping route, after the Strait of Dover across the English Channel. In fact, more vessels use the Strait of Malacca but they are of less tonnage. At its narrowest and shallowest, it is just 1.6 miles wide and 82ft deep.

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