Thailand Considers 35-Mile-Long Canal

Article excerpt

BANGKOK - A plan to build a Panama Canal-size waterway in Thailand, which would reshape maritime trade and deter piracy, has moved closer to implementation with the release of a study on what would become the largest infrastructure project ever.

The proposed canal would link the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. It has been the subject of a $4 million multiyear study by a Tokyo-based foundation. The foundation recently completed a report that analyzes the logistics of constructing and funding the canal and argues the waterway should be built.

Potentially the largest public works project in history, the waterway would cross the Kra Isthmus, a 35-mile-wide area in southern Thailand.

The canal would allow ships to cut sailing times by three to five days by avoiding the 700-mile journey around the Malay Peninsula and through the Strait of Malacca, the narrow body of water between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Shorter trips would result in average savings of $295,000 per large vessel, a separate study funded by a Bangkok lobby group said.

Many shipping consultants believe the Strait of Malacca is dangerously overcrowded. According to consultant Uwe von Parpart, some 150,000 ships pass through the strait each year. By comparison, about 10,000 vessels utilize the Panama Canal annually.

Mr. von Parpart estimates that by 2020, about 450,000 ships will pass through the Malacca Strait annually. Perhaps more importantly, the canal would allow ships to avoid international high-seas pirates roaming the Strait of Malacca.

Piracy has always been a danger in the strait, and in recent years the frequency of raids has increased dramatically, as pirates have taken advantage of lawlessness in Indonesian territorial waters.

All but one of 67 persons murdered in international waters last year were killed in and around the Malacca Strait.

The predators are well-financed and ruthless. Some pirates collaborate with international crime syndicates that have contacts in Hong Kong and China. Several groups of pirates have seized ships whose crews surrendered but still killed all the crew members.

Worried about pirates threatening their exports to Europe and oil imports from the Middle East, Japanese officials commissioned the canal study, which was presented to a recent government seminar in Bangkok.

Japan 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 a huge fleet of ice cutters. …