The Isthmus of Kra

The Isthmus of Kra

The 77km Panama Canal was completed in 1920, the 164km Suez Canal was completed in 1872. The Chinese started building their 1,776km Grand Canal in the 5th Century BC. So why can’t the Thai, in this day and age, build canal 44km, which is the narrowest width of the Isthmus of Kra, which would cut through here? It would link the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, cutting out a huge

By my calculations, this would cut out around 850km from East Asia to Europe. Currently, 25% of the world’s sea cargo goes around Singapore and through the Straits of Malacca – a congested, somewhat shallow, sometimes hazy, and sometimes piratey stip of sea between Malaysia and Sumatra.

This certainly isn’t an original idea. King Narai thought of it back in the 1600s, and it has been revisited and decided against by every king and prime minister ever since.

The growth of East Asia and China’s reliance on middle-eastern oil has meant that the idea continues to come up of late. It is estimated that Thai Canal, or cross-Isthmus pipeline, would reduce the price of oil in East Asia by 50c per barrel. China’s has recently built an oil pipeline thousands of kilometres long across the whole of Myanmar to cut out the strategic risk of the Malacca Straits, so its no surprise that China has offered to build and pay for the whole thing.

Yet there are a few reasons why the idea has always been a non-starter. The first and most obvious reasons is a basic cost-benefit: it is thought to be hugely costly, especially when considering the environmental costs of digging up sensitive ecosystems and dumping all the dirt somewhere else, and there are concerns that it wouldn’t actually be used all that much because Singapore is just a great hub for shipping services.

The more interesting reasons why the Thai Canal is a non-starter are political. For one, the Singaporeans certainly wouldn’t want their regional trade monopoly to be broken. Singapore was built on shipping, and it still forms a hugely important part of its economy. The estimates in the potential loss of their shipping stand at 30%.

Finally, having a galge carved out of Thailand around here would form a separating barrier between Thailand’s dominant North and its seccessionist South. Whether logistically, militarily, physchologically, or just symbolically, building Canals is thought to be as bad as building walls, and Thailand’s leaders don’t want it.

So, it remains just an interesting idea.

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