The Geopolitics of the Kra Canal

Aerial nature view of Kho Khot Kra or Kra Isthmus. (boonsom/Getty Images)
Military.com |

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter at @JosephVMicallef.

The Kra or Thai Canal is a proposed manmade waterway across the Kra Isthmus on the Malay Peninsula in southern Thailand. The canal would connect the South China Sea with the Andaman Sea, providing a link between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

It would be located about 500 miles south of Bangkok and 120 miles north of Thailand’s border with Malaysia. The new route would reduce the distance oil tankers from the Persian Gulf to Asian ports must traverse by around 700 miles.

The canal would also eliminate the need to transit the increasingly crowded, piracy-prone and dangerous Malacca Strait, as well as the adjacent Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java or the Lombok Strait between Bali and Lombok.

With proposed funding from China, its construction would have far-ranging implications for the strategic landscape of Southeast Asia and especially for important American allies such as India, Sri Lanka and the city state of Singapore.

The Kra Isthmus runs approximately 700 miles and ranges in width from 26.5 miles at its narrowest to about 200 hundred miles at its widest.

Overland trade routes across the isthmus connecting Southeast Asia and India have existed for centuries. The isthmus lies at the juncture of the Indian Ocean monsoon system and the trade winds of the South China Sea.

Origins of the Canal

The idea of a canal across the Kra Isthmus goes back to the 17th century.

In 1677, upon hearing of the construction of the Canal du Midi connecting -- via the Garonne River, the Atlantic and Mediterranean -- King Ramathibodi III of Siam asked Louis XIV to send a French engineer to examine the possibility of building a canal to connect Songkhla and Marid (Myanmar)

The engineer, known only by his surname de Lamar, surveyed several possible routes, but the idea was abandoned as being impractical.

The idea resurfaced again in 1793, when the brother of King Rama I proposed a canal to make it easier to send naval vessels to protect Siam's west coast from pirates.

The British East India Company examined several possible canal routes over the course of the early 19th century but decided against building one.

In 1858, during the reign of King Rama IV, Great Britain asked for permission to build a canal from Ranog to Lung Susan, the narrowest portion of the Kra Isthmus. While narrow, the terrain is quite mountainous. The project was abandoned when the financial requirements were deemed too high.

The British government, in 1863, again considered the possibility of a canal, this time on the Burmese portion of the Kra peninsula, after lower Burma was incorporated into British India.

In 1872, London dispatched Captain A.G. Lipton to explore possible canal routes that would shorten the distance between India and Hong Kong. A route was surveyed from Victoria Point (Kawthaung, Burma) up the Kra River and across the peninsula to Chumphon, a distance of about 30 miles. This route also, however, proved too difficult for construction of a canal.

Between 1862 and 1882, various French proposals to build a canal were submitted to Rama IV and later Rama V. In June 1882, no less than Ferdinand de Lesseps, the promoter behind the construction of the Suez Canal, visited the area to examine the feasibility of building a canal. Bowing to British pressure, however, King Rama V of Siam denied him permission to proceed.

The king was concerned that France, which by now had taken over much of Indochina, had designs on the Kingdom of Siam.

Great Britain, in turn, did not want to see a French presence across the Andaman Sea from India. Nor did it want to see a canal that would facilitate Paris' ability to project French naval power into the Indian Ocean.

More importantly, London wanted to preserve the critical role of Singapore as both a trading and shipping hub, as well as its strategic position astride the sea lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

In 1897, Siam and Great Britain signed a secret convention under which the government of Siam agreed not to cede any rights on the Malay Peninsula without British consent and specifically prohibiting the building of a canal across the isthmus.

A variety of commercial interests explored the building of a Kra canal during the early part of the 20th century. These efforts were stymied, however, by British diplomatic pressure on Siam.

In the 1930s, the Japanese government proposed building a canal as a way for the Japanese Imperial Fleet to bypass the British naval base in Singapore. British concerns about the proposal were clearly laid out in a newsreel from the period. Nothing came of this proposal either.

After World War II, Great Britain signed a new treaty with Thailand, the 1946 Anglo-Thai Treaty. Article 7 again reaffirmed that, "the Siamese government undertakes that no canal linking the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Siam shall be cut across Siamese territory without the prior concurrence of the government of the United Kingdom."

The treaty was later revoked by the Thai government in 1954.

In October 1983, an article in the Executive Intelligence Review, a publication linked to controversial American politician Lyndon LaRouche, proposed the building of a Kra canal to the Thai Ministry of Transportation.

A largely Japanese-based consortium, led by Mitsubishi, created considerable controversy when it suggested the use of nuclear explosives to cut a path for the canal across the mountainous terrain of the Kra peninsula.

The project resurfaced several more times during the latter part of the 20th century. In the late 1990s, Japan's Global Infrastructure Fund conducted a feasibility study that determined a 30-mile canal across the Kra Isthmus could be built for around $20 billion.

A variety of other routes were also proposed, including Brandon Bay to Phang Nga, and across Nakhon Si Thammarat and Trang Provinces. In total, 14 different possible routes have been identified for a Kra canal.

Chinese Interest

In 2005, or thereabouts, the Chinese government floated its interest in underwriting the cost of a Kra canal. The proposal was one of several major infrastructure projects that China offered to finance and that would eventually, in 2013, be folded in Xi Jinping's One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

The Chinese proposal envisioned a 10-year construction project manned by approximately 30,000 Chinese workers at a cost of $20 billion to $25 billion.

In 2007, it was announced that the proposal had been tentatively approved by the Thai government pending more extensive feasibility studies. However, no further progress was made.

In March 2014, the China Daily Mail disclosed that LiuGong Machinery Co. Ltd., a huge state-owned engineering and manufacturing group; XCMG; and privately owned Sandy Heavy Industry Co. Ltd. had agreed to take the lead in organizing the construction of a Kra canal.

In 2015, an organization called the Asia Union Group, is headed by former Thai Premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, signed a memorandum of understanding with the China-Thailand KRA Infrastructure Investment and Development Company of Guangzhou, China, to conduct a feasibility study of the proposed canal.

The initiative was also endorsed by the Thai Canal Association of Study and Development (TCASD). The TCASD is headed by Pongthep Tesprateep, a former Thai Army chief of staff, and consists of various retired Thai generals, politicians and businessmen with close links to China, who are in favor of building the Kra Canal.

The project has also been publicly supported by the Thai-Chinese Cultural and Economic Association, headed by former Thai Deputy Prime Minister Bhokin Bhalakula.

Both the Thai and Chinese governments subsequently denied that any official agreement had been signed between the two countries.

Beijing, however, has often used private Chinese companies to front government-funded infrastructure development projects.

A source at the LaRouche organization has claimed that a feasibility study was completed in 2016, that a group from Peking University and the Chinese company Grand Dragon International Holding have already surveyed a proposed route, and that the consortium is only awaiting official permission from the Thai government to get started.

In September 2017, the King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang and the TCASD sponsored a conference in Bangkok to examine the role of the Thai Canal in the broader context of China's Maritime Silk Road initiative. The conference once again urged the Thai government to move forward on building the Kra Canal.

The Malacca Dilemma

Currently, most of the ship traffic between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and from there to the Pacific traverses the Malacca, Sunda or Lombok straits. Most ships use the Malacca Strait.

Compared to the proposed Kra Canal, the Malacca passage adds 720 miles, roughly two to three days; the Sunda passage adds 1,700 miles; and the Lombok passage adds 2,100 miles.

The Strait of Malacca is a 620-mile-long waterway between Malaysia and the island of Sumatra.

At its narrowest point, the Philip channel, near Singapore, it is just 1.6 miles wide. Its shallowest point in the shipping lane is 82 feet -- just barely enough for a Malaccamax class, Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), with a draft of 66 feet.

Anything with a deeper draft would be dangerous, given prevailing currents, during a low tide.

Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCC) of 400 thousand or more dead weight tons, only two of which are currently operating, have a draft of more than 112 feet and cannot traverse the Malacca Strait. They must detour through the deeper Lombok Strait.

Approximately 300 ships a day traverse the Malacca Strait. That is more than double the combined number of ships that daily cross the Suez and Panama Canals. In total, about 32,000 ships used the Panama and Suez canals in 2016, versus 84,000 that used the Malacca Strait.

At its narrowest point, only a single, reversible lane is available, and ships must travel in one direction only.

Since 2001, there have been a total of 14 major ship collisions in the Malacca Strait. The most recent event involved a USS Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer, the John S. McCain, which collided with a Liberian-registered merchant vessel on Aug. 21, 2017, and resulted in the deaths of 10 U.S. Navy servicemen.

According to a study by the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA), the maximum capacity that could be accommodated by the Malacca Strait is around 122,000 ships. The World Bank has estimated that, given current trends, ship traffic in the Malacca Strait will reach an estimated 122,640 ships by 2020 and 140,000 by 2025.

Currently, 25% of all world trade passes through the Malacca Strait. That estimate includes more than 90% of Japan's and South Korea's oil and liquefied natural gas needs, as well as 80% of China's oil imports, about 20% of its total oil consumption. Between 15 and 18 million barrels of oil, about 17% of the world's production, cross the Malacca Strait every day.

China's ongoing and growing dependence on oil shipments from the Mideast via the Malacca Strait prompted former Chinese President Hu Jintao to describe Beijing's geopolitical vulnerability as The Malacca Dilemma.

Building the Kra Canal

The construction of a Kra canal poses several significant engineering challenges.

First, although the Malay Peninsula is only 26.5 miles wide at its narrowest point, (from the Kra River estuary to the Bay of Sawi), it is dominated by a long granite mountainous ridge, the Tenasserim Hills, that runs down the middle of the peninsula.

The ridge is more than 1,000 miles in length and varies in height from approximately 4,600 to 250 feet above sea level. Digging through the ridge has been the principal problem that has stymied historic attempts at digging a canal.

A system of locks could solve the problem of getting over the ridge. Locks, however, are usually between 10 and 20 times more expensive to build per running foot than normal excavation.

A system of locks sufficient to move ships over a 200+ foot ridge would require around six to 10 separate locks, three to five on each side of the ridge, and would still necessitate significant excavation. The highest vertical distance currently handled by locks is 370 feet at China's Three Gorges dam.

The current $30 billion to $50 billion construction estimate is based on a sea level canal and does not anticipate any lock construction. Any such construction would dramatically increase the expected cost.

Moreover, it is not clear that there is sufficient water available to permit the function of a lock system. Water used in the locks could be captured and recycled, but this would likely increase operating costs significantly.

The actual physical dimensions of the canal would depend on how large a ship it was designed to accommodate. A canal capable of handling a ULCC would need to be much larger than the 61-mile by 1,300-foot-wide and 82-foot-deep proposal that was first unveiled.

At a depth of 82 feet, including the dredging of the approaches to the canal, the entire waterway would be 120 miles long. At a depth of 164 feet, sufficient to handle ULCCs, the length of the canal becomes 250 miles.

Without a definitive route and design, it's impossible to determine exactly how much earth would need to be excavated to build a sea level canal. However, based on the current proposal and the likely possible routes, it has been estimated that upward of 1.3 billion cubic yards of earth would have to be moved.

To put this quantity in perspective, the initial construction of the Panama Canal required the excavation of about 260 million cubic yards. Subsequent expansion of the canal required an additional 200 million cubic yards to be removed.

The initial construction of the Suez Canal required excavating 100 million cubic yards. Its subsequent expansion, including the most recent phase that ended in 2016, required an additional 340 million cubic yards.

All told, the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal required a total of between 430 and 460 million cubic yards of earth to be removed. The proposed Kra canal would require approximately three times the amount of excavation. 1.3 billion cubic yards of earth is enough to bury the entire island of Manhattan under 60 feet of debris.

Dumping this much debris will prove to be a formidable task. The further it needs to be transported, the more expensive the project will be. Dumping at sea or using the debris to create new offshore islands would be cheaper but would have wide-ranging environmental and political consequences.

Land Bridge

One alternative is to use the Kra Isthmus as a land bridge between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. A road construction project was started in 1993 to provide a transportation corridor across the isthmus. The opposing lanes of the highway are about 500 feet apart to accommodate pipelines and a railroad to shift container traffic.

Oil refineries and storage depots were also proposed to be built at either end of the corridor. The highway has never been finished, however, and the railroad, refineries and pipelines were never built.

A project of this magnitude would be expected to add from one to two percent to Thailand's GNP. Most of the labor force, however, will come from China. It's not clear what supplies will be sourced locally, however, or how much of the economic activity generated will directly benefit Thailand.

The Geopolitics of the Kra Canal

The construction of the Kra Canal would significantly upend the geopolitics of the region, in the process producing significant winners and losers.

The two most significant losers would be Singapore and the United States. Singapore owes its importance to the fact that it is adjacent to the narrowest portion of the Malacca Strait and hence, from a naval standpoint, the easiest point to defend and from which to interdict seaborne traffic.

It also lies about halfway between Bengal and Hong Kong. During the first half of the 19th century, it was a convenient stopping point for British ships bringing opium from Bengal's poppy fields to Hong Kong.

Approximately 30% of the shipping traffic through the Malacca Strait subsequently stops in one of four Malaysian ports on the South China Sea: Klang, Penang, Johor and Tanjung Pelepas. Another 50% to 60% stops in Singapore, while the balance sails on through.

It has been suggested that Singapore could lose between 30% and 50% of its shipping traffic because of the Kra Canal. This is completely speculative. Singapore has also developed a sophisticated support network for its shipping industry, ranging from legal and financial services to warehousing and ship repair.

It would be a while until port facilities adjacent to the Kra Canal could offer the range and sophistication of services that Singapore offers. On the other hand, it is inevitable that the Kra Canal would have a negative impact on Singapore's shipping business.

The United States currently conducts anti-piracy patrols in the region, and in the Malacca Strait in particular. Washington has a close working relationship with Singapore and the U.S. Navy has access to port and ship repair facilities there.

The U.S. also operates P-8 Poseidon long-range reconnaissance aircraft from Singapore. The P-8s are equipped with Airborne Ground Surveillance capabilities and can play a varied role in anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare as well as reconnaissance and maritime patrol.

That puts the U.S. in a strong position should it ever need to interdict maritime traffic through the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits.

The Kra Canal would create an alternative shipping route to the Malacca Strait, a route where the ability of the U.S. Navy to project power would be less.

Moreover, a Chinese-built canal would presumably be subject to a considerable amount of influence from Beijing, potentially creating a situation where China might have an advantage over the U.S. in shifting naval forces between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Thailand would be a significant beneficiary. The construction of such a massive project would revitalize the Thai economy after a multi-year slump from which it is only now recovering.

The canal could be a significant moneymaker for Bangkok. Since it does not offer the shipping efficiencies presented by either the Suez or Panama canals, however, it is unlikely to ever be as profitable as those canals.

Thai promoters of the canal envision it at the center of industrial manufacturing, dry-dock and shipbuilding facilities with the potential of transforming the region into a Thai version of Europort in Rotterdam.

Strategically, a canal would facilitate the movement of Thai naval forces between the country's east and west coasts. Thailand currently has four naval bases: Bangkok; Sattahip; Songkhla on the Gulf of Thailand; and Phang Nga on the Andaman Sea.

In addition, the Royal Thai Navy has dockyards in Bangkok and Sattahip. The Phang Nga Naval base is badly in need of repairs and is barely functional. Ships requiring dry-dock facilities must journey some 1,500 miles to Thai dockyards in the Gulf of Thailand.

One additional concern is that the canal will physically divide Thailand from its five southernmost provinces. There has been an ongoing Islamic insurgency among ethnic Malays in the Patani region of the three southernmost provinces for several decades.

It's not clear how a 1,200-foot-wide canal, however, is going to make the insurgency any worse, although it many offer insurgents a tempting target.

A big winner of the Kra Canal would be Sri Lanka. The island sits astride the sea lanes of the northern Indian Ocean opposite the Kra Canal, making it a logical choice as a new shipping and logistics hub.

Over the last decade, China has invested heavily in building up the island's shipping infrastructure. Beijing has financed a new port at Hambantota, which a Chinese company now runs. Beijing is also financing the construction of Colombo Port City and its accompanying new business district.

Colombo has become the biggest trans-shipment hub for India and continues to expand its share of Indian business at the expense of Singapore. A Kra canal would only enhance Sri Lanka's advantage. Moreover, the opening of the Kra Canal would force the modernization of port facilities in the region.

Many Indian port facilities can't handle large-capacity container ships and, being desperately in need of modernization, would be at a disadvantage compared to other ports if the Kra Canal results in a shift of shipping to the Andaman Sea.

The larger prize for Sri Lanka, however, is if it succeeds in moving up the value chain and offering additional services to its maritime customers, just as Singapore does. If it turns itself into a regional hub for logistics, ship repairs, engineering and financial and legal services, Colombo could emerge as an Indian Ocean Singapore.

Neighboring Vietnam would also benefit from the Kra Canal. Hanoi has given the go-ahead for the Bechtel-led construction of a new deep-water port in Hon Khoai. Situated at the tip of the Indochinese peninsula and directly across the Gulf of Thailand from the likely location of the Kra Canal, Hon Khoai is ideally situated to service shipping moving through the Kra Canal and to divert it from Singapore.

Eighty-five percent of the funding for the new port is being underwritten by the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The strategic location of the new port and its utility for U.S. naval deployment has not been lost on Beijing. Although the port is intended for Vietnamese coal exports, half of the berths are designed to handle other goods.

The Kra Canal poses both benefits and risks to India. It will allow China to project its naval power into the Andaman Sea and the eastern Indian Ocean far easier than it can now.

On the other hand, a canal would enhance India's "Look East" policy and its goal of greater engagement with Southeast Asia. It would also enhance the rapidly developing Indo-Vietnamese alliance in the South China Sea.

In order to enhance its own strategic position, India has begun the Sethusamudram Project of deepening and widening the sea lane between its coast and Sri Lanka. The goal is to create a route that would funnel maritime traffic through Indian waters.

In addition, ships destined for the Kra Canal would have to pass through the channel between India's Andaman and Nicobar island chains. Combined with the Sethusamudram bypass, this would enhance India's ability to project naval power in the region and would also make India's strategic geography in the area that much more valuable.

Both Cambodia and Myanmar would benefit from access to the Kra Canal, as it would enhance Myanmar's access to the South China Sea and to the Pacific, while enhancing Cambodia's access to the Indian Ocean. Both countries currently must traverse the Malacca Strait, a detour that adds some 1,500 miles to their ship traffic.

For China, the Kra Canal offers a multitude of advantages. It would be a significant element in the "String of Pearls" maritime strategy that is a key component of the One Belt One Road initiative.

It would divert a significant amount of shipping activity -- how much it's impossible to say just yet -- northward to Chinese-controlled port facilities. It would also allow Beijing to project its growing naval power into the Andaman Sea and, from there, the Indian Ocean, while reducing the possibility of interdiction by U.S. naval forces in the Malacca Strait and elsewhere.

It's not clear that a Kra canal will ever be built. There are significant financial and engineering challenges that must be overcome before it becomes a reality.

Its successful completion, however, would significantly impact the geopolitics of the region. Indeed, even the discussions surrounding its possible construction are already shaping the region's infrastructure development and international politics.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.