Once completed, the ‘Kra Canal’ would offer an alternative sea link between Asia with the Middle East and Europe, bypassing the Strait of Malacca, a key shipping lane for world trade.
The Straight of Malacca is one of the world’s busiest international shipping lanes with up to 40 per cent of the world’s trade passing through it.
Chinese and Thai officials are said to have signed the memorandum of understanding in Guangzhou this week. The canal is would take 10 years to complete at a cost of at least US$28 billion (934.5 billion baht), reported the Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily.
The current proposal is for a two-way 25m deep canal measuring 102km in length and 400m wide. (For comparison, the Panama Canal is 15m deep and measures 304m at its widest point).
The route would reduce shipping distances for vessels entering the Gulf Of Thailand from the west by 1,200km, bypassing Singapore entirely.
According to the Oriental Daily, Chinese officials described the project as part of the country’s proposed ‘Maritime Silk Road’, which aims to revive a trade route from China through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to Europe.
In documents sourced by The Phuket News, the most likely route proposed for the canal would be from Satun on the Andaman Coast to Songkhla in the Gulf of Thailand. It could follow the current path of Route 406, which runs through the only significant in the range of mountains that runs north-south down the peninsula.
That route is the one recommended in a report by Pakdee Tanapura, the international director and acting spokesman of the Board of Directors of the International Executive Committee for the Study of the Kra Canal Project in Bangkok.
Although it is the longest of a dozen or so possible routes, Mr Pakdee regards it as the best because there is very little development and a low population, and both ends – in Satun province and Songkhla – are most suitable for the building of ports and industrial zones.
The route is an old one. Phuket-based author Colin McKay, in his seminal book, A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region, suggests that the route from Satun to Songkhla may date back as much as 1,100 years ago.
“There is sufficient evidence from excavations done in the region by archaeologists from Cambridge University and elsewhere, to speculate that around the 10th century [AD], an ancient waterway system may even have been dug across much of the peninsula from near Satun on the west coast to the great Thale Luang Lake and Songkhla on the east coast,” he wrote.
The canal through the Kra Isthmus has been discussed since the 17th Century, when King Narai commissioned a French engineer to assess the possibility of building a waterway from Songkhla to the Andaman Sea). But the idea was dropped because there was not the technology at the time to do it.
The idea has been resurrected several times since, but the signing of the MOU this week is the furthest things have ever got.
UPDATE, May 19, 5:55pm
Since this story was first posted by The Phuket News and a number of Thai websites, debate has raged as to whether the Kra Canal project is actually likely to be realised. The debate has now been taken up in interntional forums.
For example, Singapore's Channel News Asia reported, "... a Thai Transport Ministry official said the project is not in the pipeline. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also stated there has been no agreement between the Thai and Chinese governments on this matter."
It named no officials apart from Dr Panitan Wattanayagorn, "security advisor to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, [who said] the reports from China might have been a result of a misunderstanding."
Amid all the denials, however, no one yet named has denied that an MOU was signed.
The Phuket News is rechecking with its sources and will contact other sources tomorrow to see whether the signing can be confirmed or not.
One usually reliable source told The Phuket News, "There are outside interests that will not want this project to fly and it looks like they have already started..."