Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Kra Canal to have huge security and social implications

The Nation June 8 ,2015

On and off for decades, if not more than two centuries, the idea of digging a 1,200-kilometre shortcut for shipping between the Indian and Pacific oceans remains attractive, but implementation may still be another story.

The latest chapter in the Kra Canal epic came last month when Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a proponent of the ambitious scheme when he was prime minister in the late 1990s, reportedly signed a Thai-Chinese deal to develop this project. However, Chavalit denied it.

The notion of creating a new sea lane that slashes shipping times between the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea in the Pacific Ocean has never lost its powerful magnetism. In fact, its potentially huge implications are not only in the economic realm, but also in the regional security and social spheres.

Supporters like Somjet Tinna-phong, managing director of Dawei Development Co of ITD Group, says he recently told a group of senior advisers at the Royal Thai Navy about the implications of the Dawei deep-sea port project in neighbouring Myanmar, where a land bridge is planned to link the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand via Thailand's Kanchanaburi province and Eastern Seaboard.

"More recently, we heard the rumours about the Chinese-Thai plan to develop the Kra Canal scheme in southern Thailand [whose economic, political and other implications are likely to be more far-reaching].

"I told them that the strategic and security importance of such a linkage [as created by the Dawei port project] would significantly affect the balance of power in the region with implications as far as Indonesia or even West Australia."

"While the latest Kra Canal development has been dismissed as groundless at this stage, it still signifies the crucial power play in this part of the world, especially between the US and China.

"Most importantly, we've seen the US' strategic rebalancing in Southeast Asia with a prominent role in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, especially those with territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea - the Spratly islands for example."

"Now, I think the US is paying more attention to this region than elsewhere. They've already set up a base in Darwin, Australia, and this is all about a new balance of power [due to the rise of China].

"In the meantime, we've seen China's massive island reclamation in the Spratlies covering an area of 2,000 acres in the past 18 months.

"Besides the Pacific, control of the Indian Ocean is now very important and this is evidenced by the US' strategic shift in the past one to two years.

"If we take into account the Dawei port project in Myanmar, there would also be significant economic, social and security implications. For China, its southern region still has a limited exit to the sea, even though it currently uses a facility in Rakhine in Myanmar for oil transportation from the Middle East. Such a facility is not suitable for military or security purposes," he said.

Somjet, former governor of the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand, shares the opinion that the Kra Canal scheme will be more complicated and its scale of development larger.

In fact, the idea of cutting a piece of land in southern Thailand to create a sea lane or maritime linkage has been around for over 200 years.

"The logic is fine but moving it ahead will be an uphill task, as Thailand has to overcome significant negative factors before such an ambitious scheme could take off. From my perspective, the Kra Canal idea can either boost or hurt our national security," he said.

"It depends how we approach it or design our strategic security platform. If we could overcome the security challenge and turn it into an advantage, like setting up a naval base at the site, etc, that will be positive and huge economic as well as social benefits may follow for decades to come.

"Obviously, it's a significant shortcut of 1,200km for cargo ships that currently go through the Strait of Malacca in Singapore. Transportation of goods, oil and gas between the Indian and Pacific oceans will be more efficient.

"Looking forward, we could foresee the continued growth of cargo volumes between the two oceans in the decades to come, as Asia becomes a new growth engine of the global economy.

"The Kra Canal can be comparable to the sea lanes in the Panama and Suez canals, given the rise of China and East Asia on the global stage. And it could be seen as a missing link in China's grand design of so-called maritime Silk Road that will complement the highway and railway Silk Road linking modern China with the rest of Asia and Europe based on the historical Silk Road."

First part in a series on the Kra Canal saga.