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Thailand Dreams of Constructing Massive Canal Linking Indian, Pacific Oceans

A number of influential Thai businesses and public figures are pushing for the construction of a massive shipping canal across Thailand's south, which would be one of Asia's most ambitious infrastructure projects ever.

Nikkei Asian Review recently reported on the proposed Kra Canal, an idea that has been around for decades, though no progress has ever been made on it. The hypothetical canal would cut a 135-kilometer swath across Thailand's Isthmus of Kra and connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The exact planned location for the canal, which remains a dream at this point, would be about 200 kilometers north of Thailand's border with Malaysia, roughly even with Phuket. If built, the US$28 billion canal would allow ships to avoid the Malacca Strait, which flows between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The strait is currently the world's busiest shipping route, the news source shares, connecting China, Japan and the rest of East Asia with the Middle East, India, Africa and Europe. 

The Kra Canal would cut 1,200 kilometers off the sailing distance from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, and save larger ships that can't traverse the Malacca Strait five or six days, as they currently have to sail through the Lombok Strait farther east.

The proposed path of the Kra Canal. Photo courtesy of Nikkei Asian Review.

At the moment there is no sign that the canal may become a reality in the near future, as Thailand's prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has not made it part of his future agenda, Nikkei reports. However, influential figures within Thailand are trying to change his mind.

For example, a collective of retired generals has created the Thai Canal Association for Study and Development, which surveyed the potential canal route last year along with Peking University and a Chinese company, the news source shares.

Proponents of the canal believe it could be completed in five years if approved and are looking to China, which receives 80% of its energy imports through the Malacca Strait, for funding, along with other nations like Japan, South Korea and India. Their dream, according to Nikkei, is for many countries to come together and create an international economic zone focused on the canal.

They also believe the project would boost Thailand's economy, which is expected to grow by just 3.3% over the next two years, one of the lowest rates in Southeast Asia.

Nonetheless, there are a number of challenges to overcome, not least of all the prime minister's lack of commitment to the canal. The waterway would also cut off three restive majority Muslim provinces in Thailand's deep south from the rest of the country, in addition to eating into Singapore's economic dominance as a global shipping hub.

Finally, there are major technical obstacles, Nikkei adds. Inland mountain ranges would force the canal to curve around uneven terrain, resulting in a total distance that would be almost 60 kilometers longer than the Panama Canal in South America.

The future of the Kra Canal is unclear, but if built, it would transform Southeast Asia and global shipping as a whole.

[Photo via Altervista]

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