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Thailand's Kra Canal And India's Reaction


INTRODUCTION

The Kra isthmus is located at the thinnest point of a narrow piece of land of Thailand with water on each side that joins two large water bodies i.e. Malaysian peninsula (east –west) transit. It will ease the navigation towards south of Indian Ocean. In the earlier times, a serious attempt was forged by the French engineer De Lamar, to study its viability of functioning. Later in 19th century, the ministry of transportation of Thailand was positive about the construction of the canal, and predicted that it would help in making the Thai economy dynamic. Recently, China has proposed to invest in Thailand’s Kra canal which will have both its strategic implications over the region.

 To focus on advantages, the kra canal firstly, will reduce some of the overcrowding which is often observed in and near the Strait of Malacca by providing direct access to the Indian Ocean and Asia - Pacific region. It is aimed to initiate a special economic zone (SEZ)[1]. The Kra canal would also be able to make Thailand as the center of gravity for trade between Indian and Pacific Ocean. The Kra canal will be seen as a more practical and safe route, also known as man-made canal by utilizing state-of-the-art-technology[2]. On the other hand, it will be a disadvantage for the Southeast Asian region’s nexus of maritime trade which is through the strategic natural trade route to many parts of East Asia from Manila to Tokyo[3].

CHINESE INTEREST IN THE KRA CANAL

In the year 2015, Thailand’s Kra canal gathers attention of world when Chinese and Thai officials had a memorandum of understanding (MoU)[4] on the Kra canal construction, which is yet to be signed. It mentions that this project[5] will cost about $28 billion – for 135 kilometers long canal. According to China[6], the Kra canal is being considered to as part of China’s maritime Silk Road initiative[7]. Though, Thailand has always acknowledged China for its noteworthy capabilities in developing infrastructure but, this sets a new alarming situation for the countries which are either dealing with the dominating behavior of China or countries which will be disadvantaged after the Kra canal’s completion. Hence arising tensions among the ASEAN countries.

GEOPOLITICAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE KRA CANAL

The effect of the canal will impact on the trade status quo within Southeast Asian region.[8] Malaysia and Singapore have their interest because it will divert the traffic and the Malaysian peninsular tip will observe less activity[9]. The Malacca Strait is one of the prime and natural chokepoint in Asia. If the Kra canal is built, Malaysia and Singapore may suffer to some extent but Malacca strait remains a vitally strategic route for trade between the Persian Gulf and Indonesia or Australia. Moreover, China is creating pressure for the construction of the Kra canal by seeking support from ASEAN, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam which may achieve great benefit[10] from the canal. Another country which will be in benefit is Sri Lanka[11] by virtue of its geographical positioning of trade routes in the northern Indian Ocean which will result as an upcoming shipping and logistics hub. Furthermore, Thailand’s southern provinces, namely, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat[12] are separated from rest of the Thailand. The Kra canal will largely be considered in China’s interest rather than Thailand’s or Association of Southeast Asian nations[13]. The other problems[14] faced by the Kra canal are:

  • Engineering technicalities
  • The excavation required to build the canal
  • The flora and fauna of the region will be affected
  • The declination tourism industry
  • Reduction in Thailand’s diplomatic relation with other ASEAN member countries.

Though, Thailand’s government is yet to approve the Chinese project of constructing the Kra canal because it does not want to provoke fellow ASEAN members and other countries like America and India.

INDIA’S IMPLICATIONS AND RESPONSE

The Kra canal may pose huge threat to India’s maritime security. Therefore, this canal project is nothing but, just another assertive strategy[15] of China to surround India. It has either accessed or is acquiring ports and bases in the area surrounding[16] particularly, India. India increased its stakes or influence in Thailand by building defence cooperation and maritime[17] cooperation between the two. It may be noted, when the Thai prime minister, General Prayut Chan – o – cha visited India twice in the year 2016 and 2018, respectively. In 2016, specifically, India and Thailand agreed to collaborate on various projects[18] such as communication, surveillance, aircraft structure and navigation systems, and so forth[19]. Further, India also agrees to provide low-cost technological skills to develop defence sectors.[20] Defence officials pay visits to each other’s country frequently for joint enhanced military courses[21]

CONCLUSION

Collectively ASEAN member states, such as Singapore may be in disadvantageous position if the Kra canal is built. To some limit, Malaysian ports may also be affected. Whereas, the countries like Vietnam’s ports may be benefitted. On the other hand India has handled the situation with diplomacy, i.e. soft power, in which India strengthened bilateral relations with Thailand through increasing high-level visits and reviving cultural linkages by exercising Act East Policy as a diplomatic card to delve stronger ties between the two.

There may, however, be two possibilities:

  1. If, Thailand agrees to build the canal with China, and then balancing its national security and economic interest should be Thailand’s responsibility[22].
  2. If Thailand fails in their responsibility, and China overpowers Thailand’s authority in the Kra canal then, China will be easily able to influence the security architecture in the Indian Ocean and Indo – Pacific region; also, will continue to play a dominant role in the South China Sea[23].

So, the only way out is to ensure that except Thailand, no other country should be allowed to use it for its own naval vessels. This will further dilute the strategic tension in the region and beyond. 

 

 

References

[1] Shelly Mahajan, “Thailand’s kra canal project: prospects and challenges”, (may 14, 2018), south asia program, Hudson institute,  http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2018/5/14/thailands-kra-canal-project-prospects-and-challenges , accessed on march 20, 2019

[2] there is still no clarity that employment opportunities will be generated as, thirty thousand Chinese workers will be brought in for construction, ,  http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2018/5/14/thailands-kra-canal-project-prospects-and-challenges , accessed on march 20, 2019

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Shelly Mahajan, “Thailand’s kra canal project: prospects and challenges”, (may 14, 2018), south asia program, Hudson institute,  http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2018/5/14/thailands-kra-canal-project-prospects-and-challenges , accessed on march 20, 2019

[5]  it will provide an alternative through the Malacca straits which will reduce the distance of one thousand and two hundred nautical miles, http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2018/5/14/thailands-kra-canal-project-prospects-and-challenges , accessed on march 20, 2019

[6] Dr. Vijay Sakhuja, “chinese new infrastructure projects worry india” , volume 9, south asia defence and strategic review, (march 24, 2015), http://www.defstrat.com/chinese-new-infrastructure-projects-worry-india , accessed on March 21, 2019

[7] now named as belt and road initiative (BRI) also known as international golden waterways

[8] Ankit Panda, “How a Thailand Could Transform Southeast Asia”, The Diplomat, (December, 1, 2013), https://thediplomat.com/2013/12/how-a-thai-canal-could-transform-southeast-asia/ , accessed on March 18, 2019

[9] Ankit Panda, “How a Thailand Could Transform Southeast Asia”, The Diplomat, (December, 1, 2013), https://thediplomat.com/2013/12/how-a-thai-canal-could-transform-southeast-asia/ , accessed on March 18, 2019

[10]

COUNTRIES

BENEFITS FROM THE CANAL PROJECT

Myanmar

Its littoral remains isolated from south China sea. Reduces the coast of sea based trade.

Cambodia

Expects to galvanise economic growth along its coastal cities via the greater Mekong sub region southern corridor.

Vietnam

It will receive ninety percent of all its consumable goods therefore, become a rival of Singapore, as it is a major Asia - pacific trading hub.

 

[11] Shelly Mahajan, “Thailand’s kra canal project: prospects and challenges”, (may 14, 2018), south asia program, Hudson institute,  http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2018/5/14/thailands-kra-canal-project-prospects-and-challenges , accessed on march 20, 2019

[12] Vivek Katju, “another china project takes form”, the tribune, (November 12, 2018), https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/another-china-project-takes-form/681530.html , accessed on March 19, 2019

[13]“Thailand’s kra canal project is china’s master plan to secure Bejing’s interests, asserts influence in ASEAN, Indian ocean region” , Firstpost, (April 6, 2018),  https://www.firstpost.com/india/thailands-kra-canal-project-is-chinas-masterplan-to-secure-beijings-interests-assert-influence-in-asean-indian-ocean-region-4420647.html , accesed on march 19, 2019 

[14] Problems like, arising out of digging the long granite mountainous ridge (Tenasserim hill) dominating the Malay peninsula, the proposed canal would require 1.3 billion cubic yards of earth to be removed which is three times the excavation required for the Suez canal and panama canal increasing the cost of construction. http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2018/5/14/thailands-kra-canal-project-prospects-and-challenges , accessed on march 20, 2019

[15] Vivek Katju, “another china project takes form”, the tribune, (November 12, 2018), https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/another-china-project-takes-form/681530.html , accessed on March 19, 2019

[16] It contains Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Gwadar Port, Pakistan; Djibonti, East Africa; And Kyankpyu Port, Western Myanmar, “another china project takes form”, the tribune, (November 12, 2018), https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/another-china-project-takes-form/681530.html , accessed on March 19, 2019

[17] Kallol Bhattacherjee, “India, Thailand firm up maritime cooperation”, the hindu, (feburary, 4, 2016), https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/india-thailand-firm-up-maritime-cooperation/article8189936.ece , accessed on march 22, 2019

[18] Joint projects of developing weapons and equipment, ship building, repair, refurbish services, and military trade were also initiated by both sides, http://www.claws.in/images/publication_pdf/653701899_India-ThailandDefenceCooperation_CLAWS(IB144)(Final).pdf , accessed on March 22, 2019

[19] PTI, “india, Thailand to forge close ties in defence, maritime, the economic times, (July, 12, 2018), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-thailand-to-forge-close-ties-in-defence-maritime/articleshow/52797863.cms , accessed on March 22, 2019

[20] “India - Thailand Relations” , (November 2017), https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/27_Thailand_November_2017_new.pdf , accessed on March 22, 2019

[21] Sushil chander , “india and Thailand defence cooperation: the untapped potential”, issue brief, CLAWS, (July 2018), http://www.claws.in/images/publication_pdf/653701899_India-ThailandDefenceCooperation_CLAWS(IB144)(Final).pdf , accessed on March 22, 2019

[22] Ankit Panda, “How a Thailand Could Transform Southeast Asia”, The Diplomat, (December, 1, 2013), https://thediplomat.com/2013/12/how-a-thai-canal-could-transform-southeast-asia/ , accessed on March 18, 2019

[23] Shelly Mahajan, “Thailand’s kra canal project: prospects and challenges”, (may 14, 2018), South Asia program, Hudson institute,  http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2018/5/14/thailands-kra-canal-project-prospects-and-challenges , accessed on march 20, 2019.

 

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India

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Saumya Joshi

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