Kra Canal project cancellation will upset Beijing’s plans in IOR

Had the Kra Canal come up, China would have taken control of it in all probability like the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka giving it a tremendous strategic advantage, writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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The Kra Canal project envisaged linking the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea cutting short oil supply by sea to China by some 1200 km avoiding the crowded Straits of Malacca. Beijing termed it the 21st century maritime Silk Road. More than trade, it provided a strategic avenue for the Chinese Navy to dominate the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and switching of military forces through the canal.

The idea of this canal is centuries old but China has been pushing it in recent years. China’s plan in 2005 was to underwrite constructing this 120 km canal with Chinese port facilities and refineries employing some 30,000 workers over 10 years at an estimated cost of between the US $20–25 billion-part of China’s debt-trap diplomacy. 

Scrapping of Kra Canal project

Many feasibility studies for the project were undertaken in the past. In February 2018, the Thai Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha declared the canal was not a government priority. However in January 2020, the Thai House of Representatives agreed to set up a committee to study the canal project, perhaps because of behind the scene Chinese efforts.

But to China’s chagrin, Thailand has finally dumped the canal project and instead plans to build two deep seaports on either side of the country’s southern coasts and linking them with a 100-km rail-road land bridge.

The reason given is environmental degradation in dredging a canal but Thailand would have gauged not only the overriding geo-strategic and geo-economic advantages the canal would give China but also the possibility of Thailand getting sucked into a future multinational conflict with Chinese warships using it. Under public pressure, the Thai government has also shelved a USD$ 724 million deal to procure two Chinese submarines.

Setback for China

Had the Kra Canal come up, China would have taken control of it in all probability like the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka giving it a tremendous strategic advantage. Beijing will still invest in the land bridge and the two seaports planned by Thailand but Chinese oil tankers and warships cannot avoid the Straits of Malacca, a strategic waterway between Indonesia and Malaysia through which the majority of Chinese imports pass.

This becomes a more serious problem for Beijing since its all-round aggressive muscle-flexing is attracting multiple nations to bond together for confronting the rogue. China, whose central city Wuhan is said to be the origin of the deadly COVID-19, is now looking for not only a financial bonanza with the world fighting the pandemic but has made intrusions in India and has adopted threatening tactics against Taiwan and in the South China Sea. 

Cancellation of the Kra Canal will increase the significance of the CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) of which Kyaukphyu Port is a part. Kyaukphyu could be the future naval base of China or status of forces/visiting forces agreement including assured logistics. Chinese President Xi Jinping had termed the CMEC “priority of priorities” during his visit to Myanmar this January. China is reportedly putting its weight behind Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to win the general elections scheduled for November 8. Xi’s visit to Myanmar was also timed with the West distancing itself from Myanmar on the Rohingya issue. Suu Kyi’s win will help China establish the CMEC in a quick time.   

Xi Jinping is pushing hard for world domination in pursuit of his ‘China Dream’. On September 1, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated, "Seventy-odd years since the founding of new China, China never provoked any war or conflict and never occupied an inch of other country’s territory.” This indicates the level of lying and arrogance China has reached and that the perverted thinking in the Communist Party of China is beyond redemption. Xi has assumed command of all police and paramilitary forces in addition to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and appears itching to test the PLA in conflict. Xi also wants to divert attention from multiple problems at home, rallying the Chinese public on the plank of nationalism. 

China is throwing the gauntlet to the world but opening multiple fronts would be a gamble that Xi may not take since setbacks would mean the end of his political career like his father who was purged despite being a close associate of Mao Zedong. China has been getting away by waging war on one country at a time until now, but the global environment has changed because of China’s own doing. Xi may be wrong in assuming that in the present context waging war on one country will not invite a multinational response. China’s vulnerability at sea is no secret, especially in the Indian Ocean, and this will stay without the Kra Canal. Conflict in East and South China seas too will likely invite response against targets in mainland China. 

China has proved it has become a danger to humanity; the COVID-19 virus, killing of a million Tibetans, incarcerating thousands of Uyghurs in Auschwitz-like concentration camps in Xinjiang and promoting terrorism in neighboring countries like India and Myanmar being some examples. It would be natural for the world to exploit China’s vulnerabilities at sea and target its strategic arteries like the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and CMEC as well as overseas bases if China initiates conflict.

Even otherwise it would be prudent to restrict Chinese activities in these locations through actions short of war in order to tame China’s rogue behavior. 

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal)

SPS-NBN

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