Thailand’s Kra Canal, Keystone for South Asian Development

By Michael Billington

In October 1983, EIR and the Fusion Energy Foundation, both founded by Lyndon LaRouche, held a conference in Bangkok, co-sponsored by Thailand’s Ministry of Transportation and the Global Infrastructure Fund (GIF), part of Japan’s Mitsubishi Research Insti-tute, promoting the construction of a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand. A second conference on the same theme, also in Bangkok, was held a year later, in October 1984. Launching of this great project, which would represent a “keystone” for economic development throughout the Pacific region, was close to realization.

The process was subverted, by a combination of foreign inter-vention and opposition from certain powerful forces within Thailand. However, despite extreme instability in Thailand at the time of this writing, including a military seizure of power in May 2014, the po-tential for launching this project is definitively back on the table, with significant backing from China and Japan.

The Canal

Although the shipping distance saved by the construction of the Kra Canal is not comparable to that of the other two great canals, the Suez and the Panama—it will shorten the length of a trip from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea by about 900 miles—it will nonetheless carry as much traffic as either of those canals, due both to the shorter route, and to the overcrowding of the shipping lanes in the Malacca Strait. That waterway carried more than 50,000 ships per year in 1983, but EIR projections at the time indicated, correctly, that economic growth in China and India would necessitate an additional route via a sea-level canal.

But the concept behind the Kra Canal goes far deeper than sim-ply facilitating shipping. As Lyndon LaRouche told the 1983 Bang-kok Conference: “The prospect of establishing a sea-level waterway through the Isthmus of Thailand, ought to be seen not only as an im-portant development of basic economic infrastructure both for Thai-land and the cooperating nations of the region; this proposed canal should also be seen as a keystone, around which might be constructed a healthy and balanced development of needed basic infrastructure in a more general way.”

That conference, entitled “The Development of the Pacific and Indian Ocean Basins,” presented the Kra Canal, together with con-struction of new deep-water ports at either end, and industrial zones in adjacent areas, as the central hub of an Asian-wide development approach based on projects including the development of the Mekong River basin, major water control projects in China, and water and power projects in the Ganges-Brahmaputra region of India. This, in turn, was part of a global “Great Projects” approach promoted by La-Rouche, and by Mitsubishi’s GIF.

The conferences also presented stark warnings that the failure to build the Kra Canal, and the industrial development parks associated with it, would lead inevitably to turmoil in the regions of southern

Thailand, already suffering from underdevelopment and ethnic ten-sions between the Buddhist and Muslim populations in the region. Further, it was warned that the overcrowding of the Strait of Malacca would create a strategic crisis, because the Strait is a key bottleneck for oil and other trade for the Far East, especially a growing China, and thus vulnerable to sabotage and piracy.

Project Dimensions

We can compare the dimensions of a proposed Kra Canal with other well-known canals. The width of the Kra Isthmus at its narrowest point is about 27 miles; compare this to the width of the Panama Canal—48 miles. The length of the various proposed locations for the Kra Canal range between 30 and 60 miles. The Suez Canal, for com-parison, has a length of 119 miles.

The height of the interior mountain chain where the Kra Canal would be constructed is about 246 feet. Com-pare this to the height at the Galliard cut of the Panama Canal, which is slightly lower, at 210 feet.

The Strait of Malacca is not sufficiently deep for many large ships to pass through. The Strait is 620 miles

The proposed site of the Kra Canal EIRNS long but very narrow—less than 1.6 miles at the narrow-est and only 82 feet deep at the shallowest point. Current-ly, large ships are required to travel much further south, to the Lombok Strait, near Java, which has a depth of 820 feet. The Kra

Canal would save about 1,200 miles in shipping transport in Asia; its depth, as projected in engineering studies, is expected to be 110 feet.

The Malacca Strait is by far the most heavily traveled of the world’s strategic passageways, with more than twice the traffic of the Suez and Panama Canals combined. By a recent estimate, one-fifth of world trade goes through the Malacca Strait. Congestion or obstruction of the Strait, whether accidental or intentional, would dramatically increase the cost of trade and would cause severe danger to the economies of East Asian nations, which depend on oil from the Mideast.

Peace Through Development

A report on the 1983 Bangkok Conference, published in Fusion magazine (July/August 1984), addressed Thailand’s security issue: “A major included strategic factor also deserves the attention of Thai policy makers. Contrary to some reported opinion and concern that a canal through the southern part of the Golden Peninsula would have nega-tive security implications, severing the ethnically and religiously ill-in-tegrated southernmost part of the nation from the rest of the country, the opposite consequence would be the projected outcome. The canal complex, as a major industrial growth-spot, would function as an inte-grating and unifying factor, joining together the southern, central, and northern provinces in a large common endeavor capable of inspiring the entire nation, uplifting the economic condition of the southern popula-tion, and thus reducing the potential for dissatisfaction and dissension.”

General Saiyud Kerdphol, a former Supreme Commander of the Thai Armed Forces, in addressing the 1984 EIR Bangkok Conference, said: “Development and security must go hand in hand as a coordi-nated effort. We must recognize that economic, political, and social development all contribute to security—but that security, in itself, is not development.”

Lyndon LaRouche addressed the importance of the Kra Canal for the entirety of the Asia-Pacific region in a May 2014 interview with the

Fortune Times, a Chinese language journal in Singapore, saying that he had “specific, professional knowledge concerning the importance and feasibility of such an undertaking, and its profound implications for the entirety of major neighboring regions such as, most promi-nently, China and India, but also the entire region of the China-India development process throughout the Pacific region generally….

“Divide the maritime region of East and South Asia into three principal categories: China, a giant; India, a giant; and the maritime connection, throughout Southeast Asia’s maritime regions, today. Add the impact of such triadic maritime and related connections, to the physical-economic relations to the Americas to the East, and the Middle East’s underbelly and Africa. Then, the potency of a Kra Canal development appears not only as an eminently feasible feature, but a strategic political-economic force for the planet.

“The most common opposition to the Kra Canal, from within that region itself, is located precisely in Singapore. The chief source of resis-tance from Singapore, is entirely, global, British-imperial military-stra-tegic interests. The completion of the Kra Canal, is not technologically difficult, if and when we take into account the massively beneficial im-pact of the creation of such a project; it would be principally the British imperial-strategic interests in the entire Indian-Ocean region, which has long remained the principal obstacle to the Kra during modern times. There are two truly great nations in Asia: India, and the more populous China. The sheer volume of maritime trade between the two great nations of Asia, and their connections through the South Asia maritime regions, represents the potentially beneficial, and also effi-cient project for the entire region of the Pacific and Indian Ocean re-gions, and the co-development of the major regions of Planet Earth as a whole. Water is still the most economically efficient mode of economic transport among the regions of the planet.

“On Singapore as such, Singapore itself, when freed from British strategic imperatives, will benefit far more from the success of the Kra Canal development, than that development would ever bring without the development of the Kra!”

The role of the British in preventing the construction of the Kra Canal goes back to 1897, when the British made a secret agreement with Siam (Thailand), which forbade the construction of a canal through the Isthmus of Kra without British consent. The agreement also brought exclusive commercial concessions in the area under British control. This Imperial policy of “no development” continued throughout the 20th Century. At the end of World War II, the Siamese Government, which had allowed the Japanese to occupy the country was forced to impose even stricter limits on its economic development, not to men-tion the heavy war reparations imposed on them.

Article Seven of the 1946 Anglo-Thai Treaty states that: The Siamese Government undertake that no canal linking the In-dian Ocean and Gulf of Siam shall be cut across Siamese territory with-out the prior concurrence of the Government of the United Kingdom.

Although this imperial treaty was eventually overturned, the Brit-ish banking outpost in Asia, the City-State of Singapore, has remained the primary obstacle to the construction of the Kra Canal. However, Sin-gapore agreed in August 2014 to become a Founding Member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), initiated by China to pro-vide a new source of funding for precisely this kind of regional infra-structure development, which may lead Singapore to lift its objections.

Centuries of Plans

The first call for a Kra Canal came from Thai King Rama I in 1793, who proposed a canal from Songkhla on the eastern shore on the Gulf of Thailand, to the Indian Ocean on the western shore, just above the Malacca Strait. The concept was taken up in the 1950s, and again in the 1970s, but a combination of instability internally and in the region, due to the colonial warfare in Indochina, prevented any significant re-gional cooperation.

However, a feasibility study, commissioned by K.Y. Chow of the

Thai Oil Refining Company, was completed in 1973 by the American engineering firms Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton (TAMS) and Robert R. Nathan Associates, in collaboration with Lawrence Liver-more National Laboratory. The study was updated by the Fusion En-ergy Foundation in preparation for the 1983 conference.

Peaceful Nuclear Explosives

A key aspect of the planning for the Kra Canal has been the po-tential advantages of the use of peaceful nuclear explosives (PNE) to carry out the excavations on the most difficult terrain. Today, the use of PNEs is completely left out of all discussions of the Kra Canal, due to the hysteria created by the enemies of development against any-thing nuclear. This particular form of anti-scientific brainwashing was not as extensive at the time of the 1983 conference in Bangkok, and the discussion demonstrated the enormous advantages for Thailand and the world in using this safe, controlled form of nuclear explosive.

With PNEs, the construction time and the cost of building the canal would be nearly cut in half. In addition, the assembly of the re-quired advanced nuclear engineering and scientific manpower would facilitate the development of nuclear-related industries, as well as nuclear energy plants. A spokesman from Lawrence Livermore who attended the conference suggested that a major nuclear isotope separa-tion plant could be constructed as part of the Kra Canal complex.

While some industrial progress was made across Asia in the 1980s and early 1990s, the speculative “globalization” bubble of the 1990s drew Asia in—with hot money and process industries substituting for basic infrastructure development—until the speculators pulled the plug in the 1997-98 crash, collapsing the Thai economy under hedge fund looting and International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditionalities.

One of the leading proponents of the Kra Canal has been former Prime Minister Gen. (ret.) Chavalit Youngchiyudh, who also founded the Thai-Chinese Culture and Economy Association. Thailand’s close cooperation with China, now substantially stronger than in the 1980s, has created a new interest in the project, because China views infra-structure investment in foreign lands, especially in the Asian region, as mutually beneficial over the long term, rather than restricting invest-ments to projects that promise immediate short-term profit to private investors, as is the dominant Group of Seven (G-7) policy today. This is the nature of China’s proposed AIIB, which Thailand has agreed to join as a founding member.

In Japan, the Mitsubishi GIF is still committed to the project, while other leading economists are now deeply interested. Former Japanese

Finance Ministry official and Representative to the IMF Daisuke Ko-tegawa has emphasized that Japan-China cooperation with Thailand in the construction of the Kra Canal, which would be of significant mutual benefit to the two Asian economic giants, represents precisely the kind of project that must be undertaken together, as a means of overcoming the mounting tensions between them.

With the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India, it is now likely that India will also be anxious to join in the Kra Canal project. Modi’s campaign slogan was “development, development, de-velopment,” and he intends to build on the extremely close economic relations he established with China and Japan as Chief Minister of Gujarat. The Kra Canal will thus become increasingly crucial to the expanding trade between East and South Asia.

August 2014