Canals and Client States

(Source Image: http://iims.org.uk/kra-canal-project/)

Recently we covered controversies over the Nicaragua canal project (1, 2), a massive undertaking started late last year. However, Chinese business interests are also promoting another canal, which is both closer to home and could bring China much closer to her long-term strategic goals. One might even wonder if one of these projects is partly intended to mask the other from world attention.

For centuries, imperialists of one stripe or another have envisioned building a canal across Thailand’s Kra isthmus. These visions never materialized, due mainly to the resources necessary for such a huge project. Moreover, the canal has been historically seen as a threat to the sovereignty and national integrity of Thailand, and to the Southeast Asian region as a whole.

Nevertheless, in Thailand’s more recent history, every time there has been a change of regime, the canal idea gets dug up again. Last summer, General Prayuth, speaking for the ruling military junta, again rejected the idea. By the end of that summer, however, things changed. It would appear that opposition to normalizing the military government by the United States and other G8 nations is a major factor in this change. Meanwhile, China welcomes an authoritarian Thailand as part of its peripheral sphere of influence, and so now the rulers of Thailand welcome the canal.

A Kra canal has significant implications for the future of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific generally. It could shift a significant portion of maritime traffic northward and closer to China, and place it under the authority of a Chinese client state. Current routes, principally the storied Straits of Malacca, may be easily portrayed as problematic, but enjoy the freedom of international jurisdiction. It could cement China’s relationship with Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar (and up until her most recent election, Sri Lanka) as client states, potentially leave Vietnam encircled by potentially hostile powers, and isolate other ASEAN members. Construction of the canal in Kra, as in Nicaragua, will also have significant repercussions for the environment and people of the isthmus.

While the time and distance in travel saved by the canal over the Malacca Strait is likely economically minimal for container shipping, it may be more attractive for bulk shipping, including oil, which relies increasingly on the Lombok/Makassar Strait even further south. In general, a Kra canal has significantly more strategic value than economic value. It is a major step toward achieving China’s energy and geographic security goals, at the expense of other nations in the region.

Imperial Japan had designs on Kra during World War 2. Here was British Pathé’s take in 1940: http://youtu.be/s2G4XYd_Cr4

One longtime American booster of the Kra canal is Lyndon LaRouche and his eponymous, cryptoauthoritarian fringe movement which usurps the platform of the Democratic Party. This long-winded piece is chock-full of grandiose ideas and warped history: http://youtu.be/pq9QpRHJqkM


Originally published at b-copy.com on February 9, 2015.