BANGKOK — When God closes a canal, sometimes he opens a land bridge.
As a stuck supertanker in the Suez Canal focuses global attention on chokepoints in major commercial transportation networks, Thai officials say they are moving ahead with an audacious plan to build a “land bridge” across the country’s narrow southern peninsula that could transform shipping routes and tilt the geopolitical landscape in the world’s most dynamic economic region.
The vast bulk of oil and other cargo shipments between the Middle East and Asia now passes through the narrow, congested Strait of Malacca, linking the Indian and Pacific oceans. Building on a dream dating back centuries, Thai officials want to construct a short overland connection linking the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand.
The “land bridge” idea has apparently won out with the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha over a competing proposal to build a Panama-style canal farther south.
“This future transport and cargo exchange gateway will bring down transport costs by bypassing heavy traffic in the Malacca Strait,” Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob said.
Government survey crews and engineers envision a sleek, upside-down L-shaped route more than 70 miles long from coast to coast, with a railway and highway side by side the entire way. Ports at both ends of the project would be vastly upgraded to handle the expected rise in traffic.
In such a strategic neighborhood, the project already has political ramifications, particularly if China gets involved in what has long been a key U.S. ally in Southeast Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vastly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has already set off alarms for the U.S. and its allies as a potential vehicle to increase China’s economic clout and political influence.
“If built with the help of China, [the land bridge] could fit within the Belt and Road Initiative, linking to Chinese-backed railways and making Beijing less reliant on the Strait of Malacca,” the Singapore-based publication ASEAN Today said in an editorial last week. “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.
“Thailand will likely look for support from multiple partners across the region,” it said.
The land bridge would present China with a much faster way to move imports and exports to and from the warm Andaman Sea, improving access to waters that archrival India regards as vital to its lengthy east coast. It would also address Chinese fears that it would be vulnerable in a time of crisis to a blockade of the Strait of Malacca.
If the Strait of Malacca becomes a U.S.-dominated chokehold for oil shipments, then China still may be able to use the land bridge because Bangkok prefers to maintain good relations with both Beijing and Washington.
Thai officials are stressing the economic benefits of the project. They say the land bridge will be especially efficient at helping to transport oil from the Strait of Hormuz to energy-hungry markets in China, Japan and South Korea.
Ranong, on the Andaman Sea, does not yet have train service but is reachable by highway. Thai trains have a station at Chumphon, located on the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand’s slender southern peninsula has ports on either side, at Ranong and Chumphon, but would require a considerable and expensive upgrade.
Using the connection, ships arriving from the Middle East could unload cargo at Thailand’s southwest Ranong Port on the Andaman Sea near Myanmar’s southeastern border. The land bridge would transport cargo containers north along the Andaman coast.
About halfway, the route would veer east inland and cross the peninsula, where rugged mountains are lower in elevation.
Cargo then would be reloaded onto ships in the gulf sailing northeast to East Asian markets. Goods from China, South Korea and Japan could make the passage in reverse on their way to markets in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Ships currently must sail farther south and go around Singapore at the tip of the peninsula, just below Malaysia. The Strait of Malacca is wedged between Indonesia’s northern Sumatra island and Singapore, which services shippers’ needs.
Some vessels avoid the Malacca Strait and choose a much longer, less crowded route by chugging south of the equator, skirting the Indonesian archipelago’s southern beaches.
The Thai government and the national railway system have spent about $10 million in the past year on feasibility studies for the land bridge. Mr. Prayuth has reportedly swung in favor of the project, suggesting it could help the Thai economy recover from a COVID-19-induced slump.
“The location of the government’s land bridge project in the south — touted as a more convenient way to transport goods from the Middle East to the Pacific region — will be decided by June,” Mr. Saksayam told the Bangkok Post.
If the project does get the green light, then it would doom decades of dreams about digging a much more expensive “Kra Canal” — Thailand’s version of the Panama Canal — on a similar route across the Kra Isthmus, linking Ranong and Chumphon. That canal would have spanned the peninsula at its narrowest point by dredging a deeper 40-mile-long stretch of the Kra Buri River near Ranong Port.
During the 17th century, European and Thai leaders talked about hacking through the jungle but lacked the will, finances and technology to make the Kra Canal.
Arrangements to finance the land bridge have not been made public, but a major injection of foreign investment is anticipated. China, the U.S., Australia and India appeared to be interested in helping build the Kra Canal, but the price for Thai partners spiraled too high.
Both the canal and the land route increase the risk of sea pollution, oil spills and other environmental havoc in an area largely dependent on coastal fishing. Also, the U.S.-Chinese rivalry appears to be heating up again in Thailand. Washington had been toning down its rhetoric on Mr. Prayuth’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
During the past several years, the U.S. has been training the Thai navy in submarine warfare to guard its ports and waters along the Andaman and gulf.
“It is important to maintain relations with Thailand because they have outstanding visibility in the maritime domain in a critical part of the world,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2018.