Proposed Thai canal project: Between myth and reality ― Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli

JUNE 28 ― The Straits of Malacca and Singapore are facing growing number of shipping traffic and this has triggered the idea of searching for alternative shipping ways. Dredging a shipping canal through the narrow Isthmus of Kra has long been mooted as an alternative; how possible could it be materialised?

Commentary

The Straits of Malacca and Singapore are two of the most important shipping ways in the world. They accommodate the economic needs and demands of world trade and this has impacted the well-being of the marine environment of these Straits. The Proposed Thai Canal Plan may function as a future alternative shipping route resulting in a paradigm leap to the shipping industry.

Historical Background

Southeast Asia is a vast area consisting of mainland Indo-Chinese region and the Malay Archipelago. Its strategic location had encouraged the development of many ports. Back in 1677, King Narai of Siam had envisaged a plan to construct a canal cutting through the narrow Isthmus of Kra to shorten voyage time by escaping the normal routes via Southeast Asian straits.

The British were not in favour of the plan fearing that their maritime base in Singapore would ultimately suffer from adverse economic consequences as a result of such a plan. Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Kingdom of Siam signed an agreement with the British to terminate the war between the two States. Article 7 of the agreement prohibited Siam from digging a canal through its territory to link the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Siam objectively to secure Britain’s interests in Singapore. However this treaty was revoked in 1954.

Current Development

Several attempts to revive the Thai Canal Plan were undertaken in 1970s, 1990s and in the last decade. Bangkok feared that the Canal would physically isolate the five Southern Muslim majority districts and this may have adverse effects on the political situation between the separatists and the central government in Bangkok.

Thai hesitation to construct the Canal finally came to an end when the Thai House of Senators reached its consensus to move ahead with the Canal Plan in 2005. A feasible study of the proposed project has been conducted where 12 potential canal lines have been identified. The selection would be based on factors such as environmental and societal impacts, engineering feasibility as well as economic and security reasons.

With the construction cost up to USD23 billion measuring approximately 120kms from one side to the other through the Kra Isthmus, the proposed canal would be about 25m deep and 400m in width. The Government of Thailand will be funding this project with contributors from other maritime States such as Japan, China, the United States of America (US) and other interested States like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Currently, this proposed project has temporarily been put on hold due to economic, environment and political reasons. Nevertheless, the Thai government has never announced its intention to scrap the project.

Positives

One of the advantages of the proposed canal is that it generates more job opportunity as it requires work force of 30, 000 workers in construction period of around 5 to 10 years. Operation of the canal leads to the generation of an annual trade turnover of some USD280 billion and provision of better access to about 1.2 billion consumers that straddle the region within a radius of 2,400 kms.

Diversion and reduction of shipping traffic that goes through the Straits may alleviate their accommodation of unlimited shipping traffic. Less shipping traffic will simultaneously address issue of piracy and other maritime crimes in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. This will then assist to reduce littoral States’ expenses on maintaining navigational aids and infrastructures along the Straits.

The well-being of the marine environment of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore could be better managed and these Straits could be further developed as a fishing hub for the region. With less navigational traffic plying these Straits, littoral States may propose additional environmental protective measures in the Straits such as Special Areas under MARPOL and/or designating them as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs) under the IMO, conceivably, without as many objections from other user States.

Negatives

The proposal may lead to the decrease of number of ships calling at ports along the Straits of Malacca and Singapore region. However some commentators have speculated that the Canal would only attract large oil tankers and not container ships.

Vessels sailing from Europe to East Asia would have to pay double transit dues if they chose not to transit the Straits of Malacca and Singapore and the guaranteed access provided by the transit passage regime does not apply to shipping traffic using the Thai Canal. Since canals are not subjected to the provisions of the LOSC, transit of the canal could be temporarily suspended.

The ships would have to reduce their speed considerably while navigating the Canal and their navigation would be subjected to the laws of Thailand. Further, with more ships using the Canal, the security of vessels navigating the Canal would become more contentious, as the risks of the occurrence of piracy and other maritime crime may increase.

Lastly, the environment well-being of the areas where the Canal is constructed is likely to be adversely affected. With the proposed Thai Canal coming into operation, the user States and many stakeholders may be less attracted to invest in the existing co-operative mechanisms to protect and preserve the marine environment of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore as the Straits are no longer vital to their economic needs.

Conclusion

Should the proposed Thai Canal Plan becomes a reality, shipping scenario in Southeast Asia would inevitably change. It would likely be the first shipping canal in Asia and may ultimately share the same success story as its other counterparts of Suez and Panama. Nevertheless, this proposed project may still be highly controversial particularly among maritime States, shipping companies and other stakeholders. As of now, the proposed Thai Canal projects remains clinging between a maritime myth and reality.

* Mohd Hazmi bin Mohd Rusli (Ph.D) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah & Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) and an associate research fellow at the Institute of Oceanography and Environment, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.

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