Crossing the Isthmus of Kra

SUN JOURNAL

Canal: Economics and piracy revive interest in long-discussed shipping route across Thailand.

April 21, 2000|By Joshua Kurlantzick | Joshua Kurlantzick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BANGKOK -- A Thai king pondered building it in the 17th century. A European power began construction and then abandoned it in the 1800s. Politicians debated its merits throughout the 20th century.

For more than 300 years, monarchs, dictators and engineers have considered digging a canal across southern Thailand to link the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. Such a project would drastically reshape maritime trade -- and deter piracy.

The scheme has moved closer to implementation with the release of a $4 million multiyear study by a Tokyo-based foundation. The report analyzes the logistics of constructing and funding the canal and argues that it should be built.

Potentially one of the largest infrastructure projects in history, the canal would cross the Isthmus of Kra, a 35-mile wide area in southern Thailand, allowing ships to avoid the 700-mile journey around the Malaysian peninsula and cutting sailing times by three to five days. Each shorter trip would save a large vessel an estimated $295,000, according to another study funded by a Bangkok lobby group.

Perhaps more important, the canal would allow ships to avoid international high-seas pirates roaming the Strait of Malacca, the narrow body of water between Malaysia and Indonesia that container vessels must navigate en route to and from Singapore, one of the world's busiest ports.

These are among the most heavily traveled waters on the planet. One sixth of world trade passes through the Malacca Strait -- 150,000 ships a year, compared with 10,000 through the Panama Canal. An Australian study projects that the number of ship transits will treble by 2025. By that year, according to a study by German economist Uwe Henke von Parpart, East Asian countries will be importing more than a billion tons of oil annually from the Middle East.

The Parpart study suggests that if a Kra Canal were to open by 2020, about 150,000 ships a year would be using it within five years, generating an annual rate of return of 14.5 percent on its cost.

As persuasive as the economic case may be, security of shipping is also a strong impetus for the project. Piracy has always been a danger in the strait, but in recent years, the frequency of raids has increased sharply, as pirates have taken advantage of lawlessness in Indonesian territorial waters.

The annual report of the International Maritime Board documents that over the past 12 months, 285 vessels were either hijacked or ransacked by pirates around the globe. Of these, 113 incidents were in Indonesian waters in or near the Malacca Strait.

The report found that from 1995 to 1999, pirates killed 187 seamen or tossed them alive into the ocean. Of the 67 people killed in international waters last year, 66 were killed in and around the Malacca Strait. On several occasions, ship crews surrendered to pirates without a fight but still were killed. The statistics may be understated. Many owners do not report acts of piracy, afraid that police investigations will tie up their vessels and crew in foreign ports. With the port costs of a ship about $10,000 a day, the price of an investigation could soon exceed the value of the pirated cargo.

Modern pirates often resemble commando squads armed with sophisticated weapons -- even anti-tank mortars -- and high-speed boats. Some pirates collaborate with major international crime syndicates with contacts in Hong Kong, China, Indonesia and Singapore that purchase stolen cargoes.

Fifteen Asian nations, including China, meeting in Tokyo last month, launched the Tokyo Appeal, a regional pledge to curb piracy through closer cooperation and legal accords to plug loopholes in maritime laws.

The appeal envisions a joint task force of national coast-guard vessels to hunt down buccaneers, as the British and French navies three centuries ago cooperatively hunted pirates such as Blackbeard off the South Carolina coast.

Japan has a special vulnerability. The island nation lives by trade and imports most of its energy. More than half Japan's shipping and oil supplies pass through the Malacca Strait and its vicinity. It is so concerned about high-seas banditry that it is considering opening a new shipping lane through the Arctic Ocean to Europe, a route that would require many expensive ice-cutters.

Japanese officials also commissioned the latest comprehensive study of the Kra canal proposal and presented it to a government seminar in Bangkok. In addition to examining the logistics of building and funding the canal, the report proposes the development of cities, overland transport links and industrial areas around the waterway.

The canal idea has been debated in this Southeast Asian kingdom for centuries.

In 1677, a French engineer proposed a cross-isthmus waterway to Thai King Narai, who rejected the idea as unfeasible. In 1858, English engineers began excavating but found that their rudimentary tools could not dig through southern Thailand's rugged terrain.

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