Initiated by China, the “One Belt, One Road” strategy will gradually reshape the Eurasian continent, but within this grand vision of a “New Silk Road”, it is the construction of the Kra Canal in the south of Thailand which could have the greatest impact.
No official announcement has been made on the realization of this gigantic infrastructure project, but some analysts and some business forces are rightly expressing support for a waterway which would connect the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand at the latitude of the Kra Isthmus, the narrowest part of the Malay Peninsula in southern Thailand.
The enterprise of a decade with a cost of at least US$30 billion – around 8% of Thailand’s GDP -, the Southeast Asian canal would obviously create jobs in the Kingdom and beyond, but it would also facilitate global trade and stand as a symbol of international cooperation.
Impacting the geopolitical dynamics of Southeast Asia, an artificial channel connecting the Indian Ocean and the Far East would not have to be detrimental to the core interests of Singapore whose location by the Strait of Malacca has been an element of her success.
In the context of rapidly growing economic exchanges between Asia, western Eurasia and Africa, the Kra Canal would not be a substitute for the Strait of Malacca but a necessary complement. One fourth of internationally traded goods crossing the Strait of Malacca have congested the stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, and while China is on the way to become the world’s largest economy the opening of another trading conduit closer to continental Southeast Asia is the answer to an objective need.
Singapore’s 50 years of history as a sovereign city-state show an extraordinary capacity to adjust and compete which goes beyond an advantageous geographic location, the 5,5 million inhabitants of the Lion City would certainly find the resources to overcome what has to be seen as a challenge but not as an antagonistic policy designed by aggressive foreign countries.
In the long term, the flourishing economy of Thailand would not hurt any member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but the prosperity of 67 million Thai people would enrich an increasingly important grouping.
By shortening the distance between the Indian Ocean and the Far East by more than 1000 kilometers the Kra Canal would benefit international business but it would also create new opportunities for the countries located close to the new route. In the shaping of a general diplomatic environment favorable to the realization of the artificial waterway, the options offered to Myanmar and Vietnam should be studied and emphasized.
In the Kingdom of Bhumibol Adulyadej, it is not a surprise to observe that some are not yet fully convinced by the idea of the Kra Canal. One can not expect a complex project to generate unanimity in a society known for her recurrent internal quarreling, but a good strategy can certainly win the support of a large majority concerned by the future of a nation.
A reflection on the benefits that the Suez Canal brought to Egypt can help the Thai people to better anticipate how their watercourse could boost the economy of the Kingdom. With special economic zones integrated both in the south and in the north of the canal, Thailand could enter one of the most prosperous periods of her long history. Far to exacerbate the existing tensions in southern Thailand, the Kra Canal would have the opposite effect by rebalancing the distribution of the Kingdom’s economy whose center, Bangkok, produces around 30% of the country’s economic output.
The Suez Canal did not divide Egypt, the Al Salam Peace Bridge which crosses the artificial channel at El Quantara links Africa to Eurasia, similarly, a bridge over the Kra Canal would ensure the continuity of transportation on the North-South axis of the Malay Peninsula.
Even if incidents caused by the ethnic and religious insurgency in the Patani Region in the three southernmost provinces of the Kingdom do not prevent 3 million tourists every year to enjoy Phuket which is also located in the south of the country, some observers still argue that it would be too risky to invest in a massive project in a zone where tensions might erupt. But was Egypt a model of stability under Ismail the Magnificent (1830-1895)? The largest public engineering work of the 19th century has been realized with the knowledge of significant risks, and, over the years, the 193 km long Suez Canal positively modified the map of global trade and largely benefited the Egyptian nation. Today, it generates US$5 billion of annual revenue for the Arab Republic of Egypt.
When they remark that if it were a good idea the Kra Canal would have been already built the opponents to the waterway affect to ignore that new factors have created an unprecedented situation: the 21st century Chinese return to centrality accompanied by the “Great Leap Outward” of “Global China” provide both the means and the need to realize the Kra dream now.
In close cooperation with Thailand, the country which has built 1300 years ago the 1776 km long Grand Canal, has obviously a key role to play in the realization of a new trade nexus but it would be in the interest of both countries to remain open to other sources of investment and expertise.
When in the 17th century, during the reign of Louis the XIV (1638-1715), Pierre-Paul Riquet began the construction of the Canal du Midi, King Narai (1633-1688) requested the French engineer De Lamar to look for the first time into the feasibility of the Kra Canal. Two centuries later, the father of the Suez Canal himself, French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps, visited the Rattanakosin Kingdom and expressed his support for the project.
Too preoccupied by the problems he encountered with the Suez Canal Ferdinand de Lesseps was never able to really focus on a new Asian enterprise and, more importantly, Chulalongkorn, Rama V (1853-1910), who had to neutralize the French ambitions in Indochina by using the British Empire in order to maintain the independence of his country, could not antagonize the British by challenging their interests in Singapore, the outpost that Thomas Stamford Raffles had created seven decades earlier.
An inclusive enterprise, the long-term success of the Kra Canal will be also largely determined by the governance of its operations, and, in that matter, Bangkok can certainly find inspirations from existing practices – the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) or the Panama Canal Authority -, but it should also be ready to create a unique governing structure which would take into account contemporary local, regional and international dynamics.
Misconceptions about the nature of China’s re-emergence have produced the “China Threat” discourse, and those who actively cultivate this narrative or simply believe it, will wrongly interpret Beijing’s involvement in the Kra Canal as a threatening projection of Chinese power. One can expect that the U.S. will first use its diplomatic influence and its soft-power to oppose the Kra Canal as much as, at some point, the United Kingdom of Queen Victoria tried to oppose the French initiative in Suez, but one should also remember that in a spirit of openness and inclusiveness Ferdinand de Lesseps was finally able to gain London’s support.
Following open debates and convincing explanations on the collective benefits of the Kra Canal, the U.S. will have to recognize that in an evolving world new initiatives which do not come from the West are not necessarily anti-Western, they are simply the mark of a mulipolar world.
When it opened in 1869 the Suez Canal illustrated the 19th century European colonial projection, in the following century, the Panama Canal coincided with the rise of the American power but one had to wait the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1977 to see the formal end of U.S. direct control over the watercourse, in the 21st century, the Kra Canal could be a symbol of the Chinese renaissance and, by the way Thailand and the ASEAN region would immediately benefit from it, it could demonstrate our collective ability to progress.
David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at CEIBS and founder of the Euro-China Forum. He has established the New Silk Road Initiative.