China's involvement in Kra Canal will add to India's strategic vulnerability; Delhi must persuade Thailand on project's dangers

The Kra Canal has the potential to transform Asia’s strategic dynamics. India must emphasise the negative consequences of China’s grand maritime ambitions.

Vinay Kaura April 08, 2018 17:53:49 IST
China's involvement in Kra Canal will add to India's strategic vulnerability; Delhi must persuade Thailand on project's dangers

What happens when a grandiose maritime scheme, which has remained in the realm of geopolitical fantasy for more than three centuries, becomes a reality? The Kra Canal is one such project which, if built, has the potential to radically transform Asia’s strategic dynamics. Though the economic viability of the projected Kra Canal continues to be fiercely debated, the strategic and security rewards seem too attractive to be ignored by the Chinese strategists. New Delhi can overlook this development at its own peril, since it is going to add to India’s strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean, while giving China the greatest freedom of action and manoeuvring space in diplomatic and security terms.

Let’s first discuss the reasons behind China’s fascination with the Kra Canal. Beijing’s dependence on ship-borne energy resources is a reality that the Communist Party of China (CCP) cannot overlook. Since energy transportation is critically linked to China’s energy security, with direct implications for the success of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) project, the safety of sea lane of communications (SLOCs) is both a non-conventional security challenge and a military one for China. Chinese military strategists cannot imagine launching any large-scale military action without being sure of supply of enough oil.

At present, more than three fourths of China’s oil supplies from West Asia and Africa pass through the Strait of Malacca, which lies between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Known as China’s maritime lifeline, the Strait of Malacca provides China with its shortest maritime access to Europe, Africa, and West Asia. If incidents involving piracy or maritime terrorism cause delayed arrival of shipment, it may not be China-specific, and all strait users bear the consequences. But the Chinese leaders have been particularly fearful of this lifeline being choked by ‘unfriendly’ countries in the event of a conflict or crisis. The apprehension of access denial is nightmarish for Beijing.

Given that China is a revisionist power, its overarching strategic objectives are conflicting with most of other major powers who want the existing world order to be maintained and preserved. For the broader international community, China’s ‘Malacca Dilemna’ has been a blessing in disguise as it has often compelled China to follow the maritime ‘rules of the game’ and put the brakes on displaying blatantly aggressive behaviour. But few would expect China not to escape this ‘dilemma’.

Chinas involvement in Kra Canal will add to Indias strategic vulnerability Delhi must persuade Thailand on projects dangers

File image of Xi Jinping. AP

There are two ways to deal with the ‘Malacca Dilemma’. One is to make the Chinese navy stronger to protect its SLOCs. Another is to secure a route to the Indian Ocean that would lessen its dependence on the choke point of the Strait of Malacca. Although the Chinese have pursued both strategies with varying degrees of success, the problem with the first strategy of ensuring naval supremacy is that it is bound to be perceived as threatening by China’s neighbours and those having maritime disputes with China. In fact, smaller and weaker neighbouring countries are more than eager to seek a closer alignment with America and Japan as a counterweight to China’s growing naval assertiveness.

Despite the huge emphasis China has put on advancing Beijing-supported projects such as Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Asia Development Bank (ADB), China has been primarily gearing towards resolving the ‘Malacca Dilemma’. One of the ways found by the Chinese is the Gwadar port which is now a key strategic segment of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship initiative of the OBOR. By initiating projects like CPEC, China hopes to send oil supplies from West Asia through pipelines to Western China. While reducing China’s dependency on an increasingly tense maritime area, these pipelines are set to cut short the trade route for China’s oil imports by more than 6,000 miles. But that does not entirely end Chinese pursuit of alleviating the ‘Malacca Dilemma’.

The Kra Canal in Thailand will cut the distance as well as time for ships to move between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Despite the fact that it is expected to shorten the travel distance for ships moving between the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea by more than 1,000 kilometres, the Kra Canal does not make economic sense on account of several factors. But it is not altogether about economy, as China’s overarching objectives are driven more by geopolitics than by economics. Though huge trade potential is being touted by the Chinese as the primary reason to push the Kra Canal project, what it would actually achieve is to substantially reduce Chinese fears of its ship traffic being blocked by America and its allies at the Straits of Malacca.

The Kra Canal fits perfectly well with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of a Maritime Silk Road – one of the twin pillars of OBOR which is aimed at perpetuating Chinese economic hegemony by redrawing the strategic map of Eurasia through infrastructural and economic connectivity. China’s economy is the key driver of its spectacular rise to global prominence, and energy supplies are fundamental in securing China’s position as “the workshop of the world”. Therefore, the Chinese push for this project is a vital element of its relentless pursuit for global leadership in both military and economic realms. By bypassing the traditional navigation route via the Strait of Malacca, China can easily bypass one of America’s major strategic advantages vis-à-vis China at sea.

But the challenges in translating the Kra Canal dream into reality are neither few in number nor can they be easily resolved. Unfortunately for China, Thailand’s ruling junta is not impressed with the canal project despite a group of influential former Thai military officers advocating for it. Deep internal division in Thai politics is another constraining factor. The project also involves some unavoidable environmental and tourism costs for Thailand. Moreover, several experts have pointed to huge loss of local employment opportunities, since Chinese companies are known to prefer Chinese workers for all Beijing-funded external projects. However, China is aggressively lobbying the Thai government to move forward on the canal project through private sector participation.
China does not conceal its ambitions to increase its maritime footprints in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China’s naval activities in the region, coupled with its diplomatic and economic engagements with the Indian Ocean littorals, have become strikingly visible in recent years. Beijing’s grand strategy for the IOR envisages permanent naval presence which will help secure its maritime trade and economic interests, and develop logistical and operational capacities for a permanent presence as well as undercut India’s geostrategic influence in the IOR. The ultimate objective of China is to emerge as a global maritime leader capable of commanding the oceans. India is not unmindful of China’s aggressive intent in the IOR and has attempted to take some steps to ameliorate its sense of vulnerabilities. But irritated at gradual expansion of India’s interest and influence into the South China Sea, China has openly expressed its disapproval with the proposal of a four-country ‘Quadrilateral’ alliance of India, the US, Japan and Australia whose professed aim is to ensure free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Due to the persisting territorial dispute between India and China, coupled with the lack of visible interest on the part of Beijing to resolve it, China’s enhanced military presence in the IOR directly impacts India’s core strategic interests. Beijing also views New Delhi as a potential energy competitor, and the strategy of strengthening China’s position in the IOR is evidently at the long-term expense of India, both in terms of having the capability to transport oil from West Asia and of acting to restrain a rival power. The Kra Canal project, a geopolitical game changer, will certainly increase Chinese diplomatic influence and naval power in both Southeast Asia and the IOR, producing a fundamental shift in the regional balance of power. If a conflict or crisis erupts in the Indian Ocean involving the Chinese military, the construction of the canal would greatly facilitate Chinese naval ships to arrive much earlier. Is the prospect of faster deployment of the Chinese navy to the IOR not worrying for both India and the US?

Whether the Kra Canal is built or not in the next few decades will depend as much on the weight of Chinese strategic push as on other nations’ geopolitical interest in the maintenance of existing world order. For India, the strategic disadvantage far outweighs the probable commercial benefits in terms of faster and cheaper maritime route. India has been enhancing its strategic engagement with the ASEAN countries, many of whom no longer view China’s rise as benign and a source of stability for regional order. In its bilateral discussions with the Thai political and military leadership, India must emphasise the negative consequences of China’s grand maritime ambitions, while also highlighting the potential dangers to Thai sovereignty as the project would inevitably suck Thailand into the vortex of great power politics. India should also lobby Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, who stand to lose if the Kra Canal materialises, in mounting opposition to the project. Besides, India must step up the level of its cooperation with the US and Japan for promoting connectivity and infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific region.

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