Thai Canal

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Proposed Thai Canal routes

The Thai Canal, also known as Kra Canal or Kra Isthmus Canal, refers to proposals for a canal that would connect the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea across the Kra Isthmus in southern Thailand. Such a canal would significantly reduce travel times through heavily-navigated trade routes.

The canal would provide an alternative to transit through the Straits of Malacca and shorten transit for shipments of oil to Japan and China by 1,200 km.[1] China refers to it as part of its 21st century maritime Silk Road. Proposals, of 2015, measure 102 kilometres long, 400 meters wide and 25 meters deep. Plans for a canal have been discussed and explored at various times.[2] Cost, environmental concerns, and geopolitical concerns have been weighed against the potential economic and strategic benefits.

In February 2018, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared that the canal was not a government priority.[3] However, on 16 January 2020, the Thai House of Representatives agreed to set up a committee within 120 days to study the Thai Canal project.[2]


A canal through the Kra Isthmus, which would shorten shipping times around Asia, was suggested as early as 1677. Thai King Narai asked the French engineer de Lamar to survey the possibility of building a waterway to connect Songkhla with Marid (now Myanmar), but the idea was discarded as impractical with the technology of that time.[4]

In 1793, the idea resurfaced. Maha Sura Singhanat, the younger brother of King Chakri (Rama I), suggested it would make it easier to protect the west coast with military ships. In the early-19th century, the British East India Company became interested in a canal. After Burma became a British colony in 1863, an exploration was undertaken with Victoria Point (Kawthaung) opposite the Kra estuary as its southernmost point, again with negative result. In 1882, the constructor of the Suez canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, visited the area, but the Thai king did not allow him to investigate in detail. In 1897, Thailand and the British empire agreed not to build a canal so that the regional dominance of the harbour of Singapore would be maintained.

In 1946, Thailand and the United Kingdom signed the Anglo-Thai Peace Treaty, ending the state of war between the two countries during the Second World War. Out of the many concessions made in the treaty. One of the articles forbid the Thais from digging a canal across the Kra isthmus without British government permission.[5][6]

As there was no progress on a canal, the construction of a road for cargo across the isthmus was started in 1993. Such a large highway was built but as where the harbours would go was not set Highway 44 does not yet end at the sea. Its sets of lanes are 150 m apart to leave space for railway and a pipeline. As of 2020, the highway runs from 8°18.11′N 98°47.03′E / 8.30183°N 98.78383°E / 8.30183; 98.78383 to 9°9.47′N 99°31.02′E / 9.15783°N 99.51700°E / 9.15783; 99.51700.


The width of the Kra Isthmus at its minimum is only 44 km (27 mi), but the height of the intervening hills is 75 m (246 ft). The Panama Canal has a length of 77 km (48 mi), but highest point at the Culebra Cut was only 64 m (210 ft). The Panama Canal passes this point at a height of 12 m (39 ft) (canal bottom) and 26 m (85 ft) (water line), thus ships have to be lifted with locks to a height of 26 m (85 ft) above the ocean. The Suez Canal is 192 km (119 mi) long but passes entirely through a flat area (which was historically flooded by seas before). At a depth of 25 m (82 ft) below sea level the width of the Kra Isthmus is about 200 km (120 mi).[7][failed verification] At 50 m (160 ft) below sea level this becomes about 400 km (250 mi).[8][failed verification]

Several canal routes have been proposed: The original Kra Canal was envisioned as cutting through the Kra Isthmus between Ranong and Chumphon, the narrowest part of the South, a distance of about 50 kilometres.[2] Other routes proposed include a route in southern Thailand connecting Bandon Bay near Surat Thani with Phang Nga Province. Another is across Nakhon Si Thammarat Province and Trang Province. The seemingly preferred version of the Kra Canal project—Route 9A—would dig through Krabi, Trang, Phattalung, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Songkhla, a distance of 128 kilometres.[2][9] Variation Route 5A would have ships enter the canal at Pak Bara in Satun Province. Another route would see ships entering a 135 km long canal at Sikao in Trang.[10]


The idea of a Kra Canal has been proposed in modern times since the 1930s, but has never materialized due to high cost and environmental repercussions.[11]

The Strait of Malacca, just under 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) long, is narrow, less than 2.5 kilometres (1.6 mi) at the narrowest, and just 25 metres (82 ft) deep at its shallowest point. It is used by many oil tankers, bulk carriers and container ships. It is estimated that some 80% of Japan's and South Korea's oil and natural gas supplies pass through it. The strait, the world's busiest shipping route, saw a record 84,000 vessels sail through it in 2016.[12] Its yearly capacity is 120,000 vessels. The Maritime Institute of Malaysia forecasts that by 2025, about 140,000 vessels and freighters will seek to transit the strait. A canal would reduce shipping times between the South China Sea and the Andaman Sea two or three days and reduce distance travelled by at least 1,200 kilometres compared with the strait.[12] Bunker fuel savings for a 100,000 dwt (deadweight) oil tanker could be as much as US$350,000 per trip.[13]

In early 2015, calls for yet another feasibility study of the canal were put forward, a leading proponent being the Thai-Chinese Culture and Economic Association of Thailand (TCCEAT). Supporters of the canal believe that it would end Thailand's economic slump and make it a "global shipping and economic hub, rivalling the Panama Canal".[14] On 15 May 2015, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the China-Thailand Kra Infrastructure Investment and Development company / 中泰克拉基础设施投资开发有限公司 in Guangzhou to advance the project.[15][16] On 19 May 2015 the Thai government denied reports that an agreement had been signed with China to construct the canal. The canal would take an estimated ten years to complete at a cost of US$28 billion.

In 2005, an internal report prepared for U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was leaked to The Washington Times, spelling out China's strategy of underwriting construction of the canal across the Kra Isthmus, with Chinese port facilities and refineries, as part of its "string of pearls" strategy of forward bases and energy security.[17] The Chinese plan called for construction over ten years employing roughly 30,000 workers at a cost of between US$20–25 billion.[18]

Canal opponents have raised several objections to the construction of a canal:

  1. A canal will divide the country physically and pose a security risk. It is feared that a canal would separate the four southernmost provinces from the rest of Thailand and allow secessionist movements to further develop;[19][20]
  2. Demand for transit will not meet expectations.
  3. The excavated soil will need to be dealt with.
  4. Environmental concerns.[21]

Potential regional impact[edit]

The canal would compete directly with ports in the Strait of Malacca area, including Port Klang, Tanjung Pelepas, and Singapore. According to a May 2002 report in the Malaysian Business Times, any effect on Malaysia would not be felt for 15 years after the completion of the canal.[22] Singapore has expressed concerns about an adverse impact on its economy from the proposed canal.[23] One report estimated that Singapore might lose 30% of its shipping trade as a result of the canal.[24]

As of 2011, an estimated 15.1 million barrels of oil per day pass through the Strait of Malacca,[25] the existing route. Excluding port fees and tolls, it costs about US$0.00106 per ton-mile to operate a 265,000 DWT double-hulled tanker in 1995 dollars.[26] Thus, assuming a one-way distance saved of 600 kilometres (370 mi),[27][note 1] about 6.5 barrels per ton of crude oil,[28][note 2] and adjusting to 2011 dollars, the Thai canal could hypothetically reduce the cost of crude by about US$0.09 per barrel, which, if the entire traffic of the competing strait were diverted, would reduce annual oil shipping costs by US$493 million, disregarding canal fees and the return trip costs of the empty tanker.[citation needed]

Impact on India[edit]

According to US and Indian analysts, a Thai Canal could potentially improve China's naval presence and opportunity in the Indian Ocean. From a military viewpoint, they speculate that a Thai Canal will be an important step for China to strengthen what they call China's "String of Pearls", a series of Chinese alliances and naval bases, including deepwater seaports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The analysts fear that a Thai Canal, in combination with the String of Pearls, will encircle India militarily in the ongoing China-India conflict.[29][30][31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Source says 1,200-1,300 km, however this appears to be a round-trip value (i.e., includes the return trip). The transportation cost source used does not appear to include the cost per mile of empty tankers, so we'll ignore the second half of the round trip for now.
  2. ^ Source says 272 gal per ton; knowing that 1 barrel is 42 gal, we get 272/42 ~= 6.48.


  1. ^ Noorul Shaiful Fitri Abdul Rahman; Nurul Haqimin Mohd Salleh; Ahmad Fayas Ahmad Najib; Lun, Venus Y (21 November 2016). "A descriptive method for analysing the Kra Canal decision on maritime business patterns in Malaysia". Journal of Shipping and Trade. 61 (13). doi:10.1186/s41072-016-0016-0.
  2. ^ a b c d "Time to revisit canal project" (Opinion). Bangkok Post. 20 January 2020. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  3. ^ "Proposed Kra Canal not priority project for Thai govt". The Straits Times. 13 February 2018. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  4. ^ "History: Ayutthaya Period". The Kra Canal: New Gateway to Maritime Silk Road. Thai Chinese Cultural & Economic Association. Archived from the original on 21 May 2015. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
  5. ^ Fine, Herbert A. (1965). "The Liquidation of World War II in Thailand". Pacific Historical Review. 34 (1): 65–82. doi:10.2307/3636740. JSTOR 3636740.
  6. ^ Tarling, Nicholas (1978). "Rice and Reconciliation: The Anglo-Thai Peace Negotiations of 1945" (PDF). Journal of the Siam Society. 66 (2): 59–112.
  7. ^ "Untitled". Archived from the original on 17 March 2009. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  8. ^ "Untitled". Archived from the original on 17 March 2009. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  9. ^ Chongkittavorn, Kavi (28 January 2020). "Is digging Kra Canal still a pipe dream?" (Opinion). Bangkok Post. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  10. ^ Voytenko, Mikhail (18 February 2018). "Thailand Merchant Marine can play a bigger role". Maritime Bulletin. Retrieved 20 February 2018.
  11. ^ Wongcha-um, Panu (19 May 2015). "Thailand denies Kra Canal deal". Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
  12. ^ a b Parpart, Erich (16 October 2017). "Can You Dig It?". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  13. ^ "Thailand's Kra Canal: Game-Changer Waiting to Happen". Oceaneering. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
  14. ^ Chongkittavorn, Kavi (30 March 2015). "Thailand ponders digging Kra Isthmus - again!". The Nation. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
  15. ^ "Thailand, China to team up on long-proposed Kra Isthmus canal". Want China Times. 18 May 2015. Archived from the original on 5 July 2015. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  16. ^ "China announces strategically important Kra Isthmus Canal in Thailand". China Daily Mail. 17 May 2015. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
  17. ^ "China calling: 'String of pearls'". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. 25 February 2005. Archived from the original on 23 February 2006. Retrieved 1 November 2007.
  18. ^ Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy (23 August 2007). "Boosting Maritime Capabilities in the Indian Ocean". Worldpress. Retrieved 1 November 2007.
  19. ^ "Economists agree over Kra Canal". The Nation. Bangkok. 7 July 1998. Archived from the original on 5 July 2015. Retrieved 29 May 2015 – via HighBeam Research.
  20. ^ Suryati Sulong, Rini (2012). "The Kra Canal and Southeast Asian Relations". Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs. 31 (4).
  21. ^ "Home". The Kra Canal: New Gateway to Maritime Silk Road. Thai Chinese Cultural & Economic Association. Archived from the original on 21 May 2015. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
  22. ^ "KL has no qualms over proposed canal". Business Times. 7 May 2002. Archived from the original on 5 July 2015. Retrieved 27 May 2015 – via HighBeam Research.
  23. ^ The Thai canal may change Singapore forever, Cheong Suk-Wai, The Straits Times, 30 April 2016, retrieved 20 January 2017
  24. ^ "Thailand's Kra Canal: Game-Changer Waiting to Happen". PortVision. Oceaneering. 20 September 2017. Retrieved 21 September 2017.
  25. ^ Strait of Malacca - World Oil Transit Chokepoints, Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy Archived 22 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Characteristics and Changes in Freight Transportation Demand: Appendix F. - Estimating Transport Costs p. F-18. Cambridge Systematic, Inc.
  27. ^ What will Thailand benefit from the Thai Canal project? Article by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Satapon Keovimol
  28. ^ "How much, for what, and ending up where?". United Nations Environment Programme Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway.
  29. ^ "The Next Front in the India-China Conflict Could Be a Thai Canal". Foreign Policy. 1 September 2020.
  30. ^ Lindsay Hughes (21 May 2019). "String of Pearls Redux: China, India and a Cambodian Base". Future Directions International. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  31. ^ Praveen Swami (6 April 2018). "Fears rise in India as China pushes plan for canal to reshape Indian Ocean". Business Standard India. Business Standard. Retrieved 23 February 2021.

General references[edit]

  • Cathcart, R.B. (2008). "Kra Canal (Thailand) excavation by nuclear-powered dredges". International Journal of Global Environmental Issues. 8 (3): 248–255. doi:10.1504/IJGENVI.2008.018639.
  • Thapa, Rajesh B.; M. Kusanagi; A. Kitazumi; Y. Murayama (October 2007). "Sea navigation, challenges and potentials in South East Asia: an assessment of suitable sites for a shipping canal in the South Thai Isthmus". GeoJournal. 70 (2–3): 161–172. CiteSeerX doi:10.1007/s10708-008-9122-3. S2CID 54852440.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 10°11′N 98°53′E / 10.183°N 98.883°E / 10.183; 98.883