Thailand looks for cheaper solution for proposed maritime shortcut in the south

A canal across the Kra Isthmus would cut the voyage between East Asia and the Indian Ocean short by around 1,100 kilometers and relieve the congested Strait of Malacca

The Thai government has put a frequently proposed, but also frequently delayed project to build a hundred-kilometer canal between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea is back on the agenda as it seeks infrastructure investments to create more jobs in times of the coronavirus pandemic.

The canal project has been particularly encouraged by China, which has been hoping for a bypass of the Strait of Malacca, a narrow chokepoint between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra that divides the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In 2015, China and Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding on the so-called Kra canal.

The proposed canal, leading across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand’s south – the narrowest point of the Malay Peninsula –, would allow a maritime shortcut between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean and bring a new source of work and income for Thailand’s neglected south.

It would also relieve congestion in the Strait of Malacca, through which about a quarter of the world’s traded goods are passing, and cut sea routes between the Indian and Pacific oceans by some 1,100 kilometers.

However, the Thai government indicated that the estimated $28 billion in costs for the project and the subsequent maintenance expenses have proved prohibitive, which is why Thailand is now examining ground transport alternatives to the proposed canal, dampening China’s hopes for a core strategic shipping alternative to the Strait of Malacca within its Belt and Road Initiative.

Cheaper alternative proposed

According to a Boomberg News report, Thailand is now considering the construction of two deep sea ports, one on each side of the isthmus, then a connection between the two ports by road and rail. For dry goods, this arrangement could trim about two to three days of sea travel off the voyage between East Asia and the Bay of Bengal, but it would not provide a physical shortcut for container ships or military vessels.

Thailand’s transport minister Saksiam Chidchob told Bloomberg News that the port-cum-railway solution would be cheaper and cause less environmental damage than a 400 meter-wide canal as it was planned. He, however, did not implicate whether there was already a roadmap for the project.

A number of maritime economists are not entirely convinced that the new proposal makes economic sense. They have pointed out that such a solution would require more complex logistics planning as at either end of the road-and-rail connection empty vessels would have to wait until they receive goods. The costs for the deployment of two vessels for one transport job and the time and effort for additional loading and unloading would probably outweigh the savings from a shorter route as opposed to sailing with just one ship across the Strait of Malacca for already cash-strapped shipping companies, they argue.

The idea for a canal across the Kra Isthmus dates back to the 17th century, and it has taken many different routes and forms over the years. But it would come with its own strategic vulnerability as the proposed waterway would physically divide central Thailand from its southern provinces, where a separatist insurgency has simmered for decades.

The close involvement of China in the canal’s financing and construction has also raised questions about the possibility for heightened foreign influence in Thailand’s domestic affairs. On a practical level, economists have also questioned whether the canal could generate enough revenue in fees to repay the massive cost of construction.



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A canal across the Kra Isthmus would cut the voyage between East Asia and the Indian Ocean short by around 1,100 kilometers and relieve the congested Strait of Malacca The Thai government has put a frequently proposed, but also frequently delayed project to build a hundred-kilometer canal between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea is back on the agenda as it seeks infrastructure investments to create more jobs in times of the coronavirus pandemic. The canal project has been particularly encouraged by China, which has been hoping for a bypass of the Strait of Malacca, a narrow chokepoint...

A canal across the Kra Isthmus would cut the voyage between East Asia and the Indian Ocean short by around 1,100 kilometers and relieve the congested Strait of Malacca

The Thai government has put a frequently proposed, but also frequently delayed project to build a hundred-kilometer canal between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea is back on the agenda as it seeks infrastructure investments to create more jobs in times of the coronavirus pandemic.

The canal project has been particularly encouraged by China, which has been hoping for a bypass of the Strait of Malacca, a narrow chokepoint between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra that divides the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In 2015, China and Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding on the so-called Kra canal.

The proposed canal, leading across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand’s south – the narrowest point of the Malay Peninsula –, would allow a maritime shortcut between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean and bring a new source of work and income for Thailand’s neglected south.

It would also relieve congestion in the Strait of Malacca, through which about a quarter of the world’s traded goods are passing, and cut sea routes between the Indian and Pacific oceans by some 1,100 kilometers.

However, the Thai government indicated that the estimated $28 billion in costs for the project and the subsequent maintenance expenses have proved prohibitive, which is why Thailand is now examining ground transport alternatives to the proposed canal, dampening China’s hopes for a core strategic shipping alternative to the Strait of Malacca within its Belt and Road Initiative.

Cheaper alternative proposed

According to a Boomberg News report, Thailand is now considering the construction of two deep sea ports, one on each side of the isthmus, then a connection between the two ports by road and rail. For dry goods, this arrangement could trim about two to three days of sea travel off the voyage between East Asia and the Bay of Bengal, but it would not provide a physical shortcut for container ships or military vessels.

Thailand’s transport minister Saksiam Chidchob told Bloomberg News that the port-cum-railway solution would be cheaper and cause less environmental damage than a 400 meter-wide canal as it was planned. He, however, did not implicate whether there was already a roadmap for the project.

A number of maritime economists are not entirely convinced that the new proposal makes economic sense. They have pointed out that such a solution would require more complex logistics planning as at either end of the road-and-rail connection empty vessels would have to wait until they receive goods. The costs for the deployment of two vessels for one transport job and the time and effort for additional loading and unloading would probably outweigh the savings from a shorter route as opposed to sailing with just one ship across the Strait of Malacca for already cash-strapped shipping companies, they argue.

The idea for a canal across the Kra Isthmus dates back to the 17th century, and it has taken many different routes and forms over the years. But it would come with its own strategic vulnerability as the proposed waterway would physically divide central Thailand from its southern provinces, where a separatist insurgency has simmered for decades.

The close involvement of China in the canal’s financing and construction has also raised questions about the possibility for heightened foreign influence in Thailand’s domestic affairs. On a practical level, economists have also questioned whether the canal could generate enough revenue in fees to repay the massive cost of construction.



Support ASEAN news

Investvine has been a consistent voice in ASEAN news for more than a decade. From breaking news to exclusive interviews with key ASEAN leaders, we have brought you factual and engaging reports – the stories that matter, free of charge.

Like many news organisations, we are striving to survive in an age of reduced advertising and biased journalism. Our mission is to rise above today’s challenges and chart tomorrow’s world with clear, dependable reporting.

Support us now with a donation of your choosing. Your contribution will help us shine a light on important ASEAN stories, reach more people and lift the manifold voices of this dynamic, influential region.

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $10.00

 

 

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