Staff Reporter 2015-05-18 12:12 (GMT+8)
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 website.
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.
Liang Yunxiang 梁雲祥