BANGKOK: For more than 300 years, the question of whether to build the Kra Canal has been deliberated repeatedly in Thailand without any firm decision taken on the controversial multi-billion dollar project.
As China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiatives gained acceptance among the regional economies, there seems to be a new and coordinated drive among proponents of the project to push for Kra Canal’s speedy realisation.
During the recently-held “International Conference on Technology for Sustainable Paths to Thailand’s Future. Kra Canal”, several of China’s experts, as expected, were the most enthusiastic group in lobbying the Thai government to give its blessings on the proposed 130km-long canal.
They argued that the Kra Canal, or Thai Canal as it is known now, would save shipping cost and valuable time as the canal linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans would cut more than 1,200km or “two to three days” of a ship’s journey without traversing the narrow and congested Malacca Straits.
The Chinese experts wanted Bangkok’s military-led government “to stop wasting any more time” and to immediately start a feasibility study on the canal, as the first step into fulfilling more than 300 years of a long-awaited dream.
“After China proposed the initiative (OBOR), many people in Thailand generally believe that the opportunity to build the canal is coming. The initiative provides a golden opportunity for the Kra Isthmus Canal.
“As the development of the Kra Canal is of great significance to Thailand, it is recommended that the relevant departments in Thailand start the feasibility study as soon as possible,” said Prof Zhou Dawei from Peking University, when tabling a paper titled, “The Kra Canal under the Belt and Road Initiative” at the conference.
Another expert, Dr Jingsong Zhao, in calling for the construction of Kra Canal, said the canal would bring immense benefit to the country and turn it into the new international shipping hub by clustering shipping, trade and financial services in Thailand.
The Kra Canal project, according to him, is a “great century project” and would bring significant impact to Thailand, not only in the economy, politics, science and technology, but would also be strategic in the maritime domain as it connects the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
Despite the rosy assessment of Kra Canal from its proponents, critics of the project have “punched a hole” into its economic viability as the canal, located in southern Thailand’s Kra Isthmus, according to them, would only save 1,200km of sea journey, compared to “saving” 10,000km for the Suez Canal and 7,000km for the Panama Canal.
The economic benefits would be negligible, they said.
The critics have always counter-argued the economic benefits from Kra Canal as “too small” to justify its exorbitant price tag, with experts estimating the 130km-long canal to cost between US$30 billion to US$50 billion or more to build, depending on the width, depth and route of the canal.
Meanwhile, Kra Canal Study Team head Pakdee Tanapura has allayed the much talked about fears of the possible negative impacts of the canal on regional countries, especially Singapore which depend heavily on maritime trade.
While Thailand will derive many economic advantages associated with the construction of Kra Canal, the multiplier effect from the mammoth project, according to him, will be too enormous and benefit the whole Southeast Asian economy.
“Southeast Asia will be the economic hub of the world,” said the long-time advocator of the Kra Canal.
Despite the fears of its impact on neighbouring countries, Pakdee said finding an alternative shipping route to the Malacca Straits was actually long overdue as the straits, where 20% of world’s trade pass through, was just “several more years” from nearing its saturation point.
He cited a study by the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) which pointed out that the straits could only accommodate a maximum quantity of 122,000 ships per year, while the World Bank estimated that 122,640 ships would navigate the straits by 2020.
The Kra Canal, he said, would divert much of the current congestion in the straits and minimise the risk of ship collisions as what happened between the United States’ Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyer USS John S.McCain and the Liberia-registered merchant vessel last month, which killed 10 US navy personnel.