Thailand is tentatively moving ahead with its long-anticipated plan to link the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea, making shipping between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean faster and cheaper.
The Thai government is pushing ahead with a plan to build a “land bridge” of highways and rail lines linking two new deep sea ports, one on the Andaman Sea and one on the Gulf of Thailand. The project aims to make southern Thailand the main route for cargo and oil traveling from the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the Pacific by offering a faster and cheaper alternative to shipping through the Strait of Malacca.
Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob said on March 15 that the location of the project will be announced by June. “Southern Thailand has a good potential to become an intercontinental shipment and cargo exchange gateway,” he said.
The announcement indicates the government may have finally dropped a controversial plan to dig a canal across southern Thailand, sometimes called the Kra Canal. The Thai Canal Association, a group pushing the project, says it would be 120 kilometers long, 30 meters deep and 400 meters wide.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha also appears to have endorsed the land bridge proposal over the canal, suggesting last fall that it could help kick-start the country’s recovery from COVID-19.
Government touts potential of land bridge over canal
The Chumphon-Ranong land bridge, as it’s been called, will connect a port in Ranong province on southern Thailand’s west coast to a port in Chumphon province on the east coast. The transport minister said in mid-2020 that the projects could involve expansion of existing ports or reclaiming land to build new ports. He said the link between the two could include 120 kilometers of dual tracked railway and highway.
“This future transport and cargo exchange gateway will bring down transport costs by bypassing heavy traffic in the Malacca Strait. It will attract operators to use it,” he said.
Saksayam said that each year, around 4.3% of all cargo in the world—24.7 million cargo containers—passes through the Strait of Malacca. According to statistics cited by the minister, over 80% of the crude oil passing through the straight is bound for countries in the Pacific, primarily China, South Korea and Japan.
The transportation minister also suggested last July that the Kra Canal might simply not be feasible. “To dig a canal, I don’t think is suitable for Thailand because the water levels in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand differ. In the canal, there must be transition points, which takes space and is time-consuming.”
The minister’s comments echo similar issues encountered by French developers when they first attempted to construct the Panama Canal in the late 1800s. The same diplomat who led the effort to dig the Suez Canal attempted to dig a sea level canal in Panama but failed to account for differences in water levels between the east and west ends of the canal.
But the project still represents a major gamble as it depends on Thailand doing everything it can to make the land bridge a cheaper and faster option. The plan would require cargo to be unloaded, transported by truck or rail and loaded again, all with minimal costs. Even if it does attract shipping traffic, it’s unclear who will see the economic benefits of the project. Residents around the project area may see gains but without an in-depth impact assessment, it’s difficult to see how much revenue will go to these communities and how much will go to the government and, for example, rail and port operators.
In some areas near the would-be land bridge, residents are already opposed to the idea of large-scale construction. In Chana district of Songkhla province, much of the local population has consistently opposed a planned industrial zone, which they say would damage their food security and vital coastal ecosystems that they depend on.
Thailand’s move to link its coasts is a geopolitical play
The progress of the land bridge, including its location, investors and design, has major implications for regional economic integration and geopolitics. If built with the help of China, it could fit within the Belt and Road Initiative, linking to Chinese-backed railways and making Beijing less reliant on the Strait of Malacca. If Thailand finds other partners or keeps most control of the project in-house, it could provide a counterpoint to China’s plans by increasing regional trade integration without the assistance of Beijing.
As Thailand moves ahead with the land bridge, it may quickly become a tool for balancing the influence of China and other regional partners. Thailand has made it clear that, while it’s happy to build a close relationship to Beijing, it doesn’t want to be seen as beholden to foreign influence. While the US isn’t interested in backing this type of infrastructure project, Thailand will likely look for support from multiple partners across the region.
When the canal option still looked promising, the US, Australia, India and China all showed interest in helping Thailand with its construction. But the canal became deeply tied to nationalist sentiment, as it represented a major national undertaking that would set Thailand apart from its peers. The canal idea itself has a long history, having reportedly been floated as far back as the 1700s under King Rama I. This same importance has now been transposed onto the land bridge project—though it may still seem like a reach, Thailand is unlikely to drop the dream of linking its coasts.
Some in the Thai government still insist the canal will be built. Former Major Songklod Tipparat, the chairman of a parliamentary sub-committee tasked with discussing the project, said last September that the canal is “unstoppable.”
The China factor also may be playing a role in the growing reticence regarding the Kra Canal. Project proponents invited three Chinese-Thai firms to discuss the canal. Observers, as well as members of parliament, have voiced concerns that the canal would facilitate China’s dominance between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and place Thailand too far inside Beijing’s sphere of influence.
On a practical level, the land bridge project is now attached to other economic integration plans within Thailand, as it falls under the government’s Southern Economic Corridor (SEC), one of six regional development plans initially approved in 2019 with a budget of 94.4 billion baht (US$3.1 billion). The SEC will reportedly focus on four main areas: trade with countries in the Indian Ocean, tourism on the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea, agricultural product industries and ecological and cultural conservation. The government says it will seek investment for the southern corridor until 2023.
To date, the SEC has received far less attention than the Eastern Economic Corridor, a plan to turn provinces to the east of Bangkok into a high-tech industrial hub. The government says the new economic zone could increase Thailand’s GDP growth by as much as 5% per year, generating annual revenue upwards of 450 billion baht (US$14.6 billion).
The government has yet to publicize any similar projections for the land bridge. As of early 2021, the government is surveying possible locations and conducting a formal study of the proposed project.