Thailand Puts China’s Plan to Bypass Strait of Malacca on Hold

September 10, 2020 Updated: September 13, 2020

News Analysis

An attempt by China to avoid having to send its shipping through the narrow waters of the Strait of Malacca by building a canal through Thailand has been halted for now, as the Thai government—because of internal protests—has put the project on hold.

Such a canal isn’t a new proposal—in the past, the British, Japanese, and French have wanted to build the canal, cutting through the skinniest portion of the Malay peninsula, starting at the isthmus of Kra. Plans have been debated since 1677 when King Ramathibodi III asked French engineers to research its viability.

The Chinese were pushing the Thai government, under the Beijing regime’s Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative, to build a bypass to the waterway, which bears almost half of the world’s total seaborne trade.

Chinese analysts see the canal as a means to ensure energy security for China “by reducing the need for Chinese-flagged oil tankers to transit through the Malacca Straits, which was ‘controlled’ by the United States,” according to a paper by Ian Storey, a senior fellow and editor of the journal Contemporary Southeast Asia at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Keeping in mind the domestic, economic, and geopolitical factors, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha was cautious in responding to the project, Storey said.

Professor Bogdan J. Góralczyk, Poland’s former ambassador to Thailand, told The Epoch Times in an email that Chan-ocha had asked for a new feasibility study of the canal in January, and a discussion in the national assembly also was occurring. Meanwhile, some generals and representatives from southern Thailand were pressing for the investment.

Epoch Times Photo
Location of Kra Isthmus on Thailand map. (NordNordWest/Creative Commons)

“China was intended to include the Kra Canal into its BRI vision, combining it with some investments in Myanmar and the Indian Ocean (e.g., a deep-sea port in Khawpheu),” said Góralczyk, who is also the director of the Centre for Europe at the University of Warsaw.

He added that while China and Thailand had held diplomatic talks, the pandemic had lessened the value of the project. However, in the past few weeks, the canal returned to the news because of increasing tensions between India and China.

After the conflict on June 15 in Galwan, India, in which 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers lost their lives, India has deployed frontline vessels along the Strait of Malacca, and Indian media started talking about how the Thai canal would become a strategic and economic asset for China in the Indo-Pacific.

During this time, intense protests by the Thai opposition Pheu Thai Party and the public, fueled by concerns that the 75-mile megaproject would threaten the sovereignty of Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Cambodia and increase Chinese interference in the region, convinced the Thai government to scrap the project on Sept. 3Asia News reported.

Thailand simultaneously also stepped back from the purchase of two Yuan-class S26T submarines from China worth $724 million.

Ted Malloch, author of “Trump’s World: Geo Deus” and other books, told The Epoch Times in an email that “lucre” would have been a good reason for the Thai canal project.

“[The fact] that one country and/or its financial institutions (state-backed or not) would try to finance big infrastructure projects like some latter-day Cecil Rhodes can only be objectionable if the appropriate measures of consent and respect for national sovereignty are not part of the package,” Malloch said, referring to China.

“China’s record so far is quite pushy, both on the project finance side and in the wider diplomatic disputes—even with countries like Thailand, who are essential to this kind of project’s long-term future.”

Shankari Sundararaman, associate professor and expert on Southeast Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told The Epoch Times in an email that it’s “premature” to think that the canal project has been completely scrapped.

“The current political situation in Thailand is not conducive to any megabillion-dollar deals. Both the submarine project and this canal are on hold,” Sundararaman said.

Thailand’s Minister of Transport Saksiam Chidchob last month said the Thai government is instead planning to build a land passageway that would connect two ports, one each on the Gulf of Thailand and the Arabian Sea. A $3.3 million study has been approved to study the bridge’s feasibility, the Thailand Construction News reported, citing Saksiam.

The government of Thailand didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment by The Epoch Times about the decision.

While multiple feasibility studies about such a canal have been conducted in the past few centuries, growing public unrest in Thailand and the geopolitical situation that exists between China and the United States in the Indo-Pacific has given it new meaning.

Epoch Times Photo
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn (R) and Queen Suthida walk along the Yaowarat street during a visit to the Chinatown district of Bangkok, on Dec. 6, 2019. (Romeo GACAD/AFP via Getty Images)

Thailand’s Internal Politics

The Thai canal project was supported by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who favored converting the major cities around the canal into major ports, like Singapore, Sundararaman said.

“However, with the opposition to Shinawatra’s brand of politics, in the aftermath of the 2006 coup d’etat in Thailand, the potential support for the canal reduced,” Sundararaman said, adding that King Maha Vajiralongkorn has “ostensibly” supported the project’s revival.

“Rather than seeing it as China’s ability to intervene in Thai politics, it needs to be understood that Thai politics and crony capitalism are closely interlinked, leading to conglomerates pressing for the Kra canal project. The current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has recently been trying his best to get greater leverage over some projects, and the Kra canal could well be one of them,” she said.

Chan-ocha, on the other hand, says there’s no possibility for the project going forward.

“However, if the King continues to push ahead on the basis of the business conglomerates, it may lead to further political instability in the country, where there is already a demand for change,” Sundararaman said.

Opposition to the project in the country has come from those who worry about the environmental degradation around the canal, while the supporters have said that the advantages of the project outweigh its disadvantages, she said.

“The actual threat would be to Thai sovereignty and the issues of strategic autonomy that each state must protect. The BRI is not merely an economic issue but had grave geopolitical implications that will impact small and medium countries far more than others,” she said.

Malloch says he’s visited Thailand multiple times as a diplomat and greatly admires the country and its people.

“The last thing I would want is to have it ruined or overrun by the malevolent mercantilist and totalitarian one-party state of the CCP,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha speaks during the 7th ASEAN-US Summit in Bangkok on Nov. 4, 2019, on the sidelines of the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. (Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP via Getty Images)

Geopolitics

Malloch said a Thai canal would lead to the Chinese navy battlegroup spilling across Thailand into the Indian Ocean.

“If you want the great … balance of power angle, Bhutan, and Nepal are the only buffer states between China and India right now. There are problems there, but the strategic logic—la raison d’état—of those buffer states is to oblige either power to invade a neutral country on their way across the Himalayas,” he said.

He said if the canal was built, it would have created a third buffer between India and China on the maritime frontier, in the way the other two exist along with the Himalayan mountain range.

Sundararaman said the geopolitical shifts happening in the region have created a singular maritime system out of the Indian and Pacific oceans, and the Thai canal needs to be seen in that context.

“The reason for this new approach is that since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has been one of the predominant powers in the larger system-level analysis—which refers to the global order per se,” she said, referring to the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy that the U.S. issued in 2017.

She said that the continued dominance of the United States in the global order is now being challenged by China.

“What is more disconcerting is that as China rises, its approach to the international system and adherence to the rule of law seems to be shifting too. [It’s] especially evident in the South China Sea, where China has been involved in the building of artificial islands and claiming its historical rights to the region, affecting the rights of other regional countries under international law,” she said, adding that the United States and its allies are also keen to maintain the normative order.

“Particularly the questions of ‘freedom of navigation’ and the ‘respect for sovereignty,’ which puts stresses on all the regional countries. It would be imperative for the U.S. and its allies to address the divergences among the various players to find a more viable approach for the Indo-Pacific,” she said.

Epoch Times Photo
The Tanjung Pagar port terminal and Marina Cruise center are pictured in Singapore on June 17, 2020. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Threat to Singapore

Meanwhile, Singapore would be dealt a severe blow to its economic and geopolitical relevance if such a canal is built, Malloch says.

“I’d be remiss not to mention Singapore again, they play the role in ASEAN that Luxembourg does in the European Union. They’re in charge of keeping the long-term goals in line—Singapore is better at it than Luxembourg,” he said.

“Insofar as this canal weakens Singapore, that could be a net negative for American interests and the interests of the democracies of the region. There are many members of the budding alliance of democracies who would be affected if this canal was built.”

The Malacca Strait and Singapore together create the world’s most important shipping waterways from an economic and geopolitical perspective and are listed in the list of high-risk areas by the Joint War Committee (JWC) of Lloyd’s Market Association (pdf).

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