Forget the new Cold War in the Pacific between the United States and China. There’s a much warmer war already going on between India and China that has killed at least 20 on a disputed border in the high Himalayas. At sea, China is attempting to encircle India with a series of alliances and naval bases evocatively known as the string of pearls. China’s greatest vulnerability in its strategy to dominate the Indian Ocean—and thereby India—is the Malacca Strait, a narrow sea lane separating Singapore and Sumatra, through which so much marine traffic must pass that it’s both a lifeline for China’s seaborne trade and the main path for its navy toward South Asia, and points further west. With regards to China’s rivalry with India—and its strategic ambitions in Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and beyond—anything that reduces the dependency on one narrow chokepoint between potentially hostile powers is vital.
That’s where the most ambitious of all of Beijing’s regional infrastructure projects—the controversial Belt and Road Initiative—comes in: a long-mooted canal across southern Thailand’s Kra Isthmus, the narrowest point of the Malay peninsula, which would open a second sea route from China to the Indian Ocean. This could allow the Chinese navy to quickly move ships between its newly constructed bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean without diverting more than 700 miles south to round the tip of Malaysia. That would make the Thai canal a crucial strategic asset for China—and a potential noose around Thailand’s narrow southern neck. If Thailand allows China to invest up to $30 billion in digging the canal, it may find that the associated strings are attached forever.
Long controversial, the canal now seems to have gained widespread support among Thailand’s political elite, with a parliamentary committee due to make recommendations on the project this month. Even the historically critical Bangkok Post has editorialized in favor of the canal. Chinese influence operations in Thailand have probably helped shape public opinion. And despite its nominal alliance with the United States, Thailand has tilted strongly toward China ever since the United States refused to recognize a military takeover of the Thai government in 2014.
A Thai canal would fit neatly into Beijing’s plans to encircle India. The Chinese Navy is actively pushing west into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, opening an East African logistics base in Djibouti and conducting joint exercises in the region with the navies of Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and even Russia. The plethora of China-sponsored port infrastructure projects throughout the region only add to the impression of encirclement. India has responded by gearing up for potential future confrontations with China at sea. In August, the Hindustan Times reported that India was planning significant upgrades of its air and naval facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, specifically to counter China. An Indian union territory with a population of fewer than half a million, the strategic archipelago intersects the sea lanes leading from the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean. They also have the potential to quarantine the proposed Thai canal.
The Malacca Strait has been a key corridor of global commerce for centuries, if not millennia. The Italian adventurer Marco Polo sailed through the strait in 1292 on his way home from the court of Kublai Khan. In the early 1400s, China’s Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He passed through on his voyages to India, Africa, and the Middle East. Today, more than 80,000 ships a year transit the strait, which is a key corridor bringing oil to East Asia and manufactured goods back out. Modern Singapore’s prosperity has been built on its strategic location at the narrow southeastern end of the strait.
The Thai Canal Association, which is closely linked to the politically powerful Thai army, argues that Thailand could divert some of that prosperity to itself, building industrial parks and logistics hubs at both ends of what could become one of Asia’s major transit arteries. There is some logic to that argument. Although industry experts estimate that the canal would be uneconomical at today’s shipping rates and fuel costs, the current route through the Malacca Strait has almost reached its safe limit in terms of the shipping volume it can handle. Current alternatives to Malacca, like Indonesia’s Sunda Strait, would require east-west cargos to detour even further out of their way.
The current Thai canal proposal, known as the 9A route, would involve two parallel channels—each 30 meters deep, 180 meters wide, and running 75 miles at sea level from Songkhla on the Gulf of Thailand to Krabi in the Andaman Sea.
By embracing the proposed project, however, Thailand risks splitting itself in two. Thailand faces an active insurgency in its three southernmost provinces, which are majority Muslim in religion and majority Malay in ethnicity. The canal could become a symbolic border between “mainland” Thailand in the north and a separatist movement in the south. It wouldn’t hamper the Thai military’s aggressive counterinsurgency campaign, but it would create a divide that could last for centuries. Once the channels have been dug out, they would be impossible to fill in, and if Thailand were ever to break in two, the Thai canal could be the fault along which it cracks.
Thais may recall that Colombia once had a northwestern isthmus called Panama. When Panamanian secessionists revolted in 1903, the U.S. Navy stepped in to ensure the new country’s independence. The United States’ Isthmian Canal Commission moved in one year later, and the Panama Canal finally opened for business in 1914. Panama has been a virtual U.S. protectorate ever since. The Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, was the focus of British and French military intervention as late as 1956. It remained a geopolitical football until 1975, and even today Egypt faces an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula on the other side of the canal.
Today, Thailand’s territorial integrity is relatively secure. But a successful Thai canal project would reconfigure the political geography of Southeast Asia. It would bring in China as a permanent security partner that could not easily be kicked out—just ask Panama. Coupled with planned investments in ports at Sihanoukville in Cambodia and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, China will see the Thai canal as a strategic waterway connecting its string of pearls. Were a hostile government in Bangkok ever to threaten to cut that string, it is not inconceivable that China would support an independence movement in the south and seize control of the canal in an intervention justified by the need to protect its own interests—again, the creation of Panama is instructive.
Perhaps getting wise to the canal’s inherent dangers, the Thai Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob recently said he preferred building rail and highway links across the isthmus instead of a canal. Chidchob said the government has budgeted funds to study the construction of two new seaports—one on each side of the isthmus—as well as a “land bridge” to shuttle goods between them.
A Thai canal would pose little threat to the United States, its allies, or even India, which can effectively (if expensively) counter Chinese expansionism by upgrading its domestic forward bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The real concern is that it would further undermine the independence of poor southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, which have comparatively weak civil societies that are highly vulnerable to Chinese interference. And it absolutely imperils Thailand. The Malacca Strait has been a boon to Singapore only because Singapore has an open economy that is relatively free from foreign influence. Thailand should ponder that lesson before it sticks its neck out for China.