China and Thailand recently agreed in Guangzhou on a canal project through the Kra Isthmus, the narrowest part of the Malay peninsula in southern Thailand, which means the project, in the pipeline for years, may start construction soon, according to the website of Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily.
The agreement follows on from efforts by China to hammer out the
implementation of its New Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk
Road initiatives, with the ongoing push to establish a China-Pakistan economic
corridor and a Sino-Russia high-speed rail project. When the canal of over 100
kilometers in length opens, ships will be able to pass from the Gulf of Thailand
in the Pacific directly into the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean, cutting down
the current route by at least 1,200 kilometers, the website stated.
At the research and investment cooperation talks in Guangzhou, China and
Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding on the canal project, according to
the website. The project, expected to begin construction soon, will likely take
ten years to complete and will cost US$28 billion. The canal will mean that oil
transport ships and merchant ships travelling from the Middle East to China will
no longer have to pass through the Strait of Malacca.
The Strait of Malacca is a an important maritime passage and especially
important for China's oil supply, as 80% of China's oil comes from the Middle
East and Africa and 80% of this has to pass through the strait, where pirates
pose a constant threat to China's oil supply.
Liang Yunxiang, a professor at the School of International Studies of Peking
University told the website that the memorandum of understanding suggests that
China is going to be the main driver behind the opening of the canal, which has
important political and strategic significance. Liang said the project will help
strengthen China's cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) Free Trade Area at the same time as ridding itself of its reliance on
the Strait of Malacca. It will also cut short the route ships have to take,
cutting the time taken by two to five days and consequently reduce costs and
boost the development of ports in Hong Kong and the mainland. Liang said,
however, that there are also political risks to the project, as it is subject to
the political climate of countries in Southeast Asia and US-Thai relations.
Another motive behind the project is China's fear that the US could blockade
the Strait of Malacca, cutting off the country's oil supply, according to the
Macau-based military analyst Huang Dong said that the canal will also improve
the PLA Navy's ability to react to international incidents. The PLA Navy
recently evacuated citizens of several countries from Yemen, for example, after
the civil war there escalated.
Li Zhenfu, a professor at Dalian Maritime University, stated said that as
Chinese companies will participate in the project, China will likely be granted
some level of authority over the canal and may even be able to negotiate to
refuse passage through the canal to warships from certain countries, increasing
China's influence in Southeast Asia.
The idea for the canal, which will be the largest in Asia on its completion,
is said to have first emerged in the 17th century and over 100 years ago it was
formally proposed by Chulalongkorn, king of Siam. The costs were too much for
Siam to bear, however, and the project was later delayed by the two world wars
of the 20th century.
The current proposal is for a two-way 25 m deep canal measuring 102 km in
length and 400 m wide. The Panama Canal is only 15 m deep and it measures only
304 m at its widest point.