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Thai dream shattered, China given a reality check by India

Thai dream shattered, China given a reality check by India

In September 1976, a report titled 'The Panama Canal and the problem of security' — a culmination of several years of research and fact-gathering — was submitted to the United States Senate. It highlighted concerns and also questioned the ability of a small country like Panama in guaranteeing the security of the politically, strategically and economically important Canal. The US was worried that Panama might fall prey at any time to Soviet-Castro infiltration leaving the control of the Canal in completely hostile hands.

Almost 42 years later, in 2018, Panama's Vice President Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, while on a bilateral visit to Thailand, spoke about how the Kra Canal project — linking the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea — will change the fortunes of the country. She was also asked by the local media if Panama is still worried about the security of the canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and is a gateway to the region? The Panamanian politician replied that security concerns would always remain but "a strong cooperation with regional allies" helps her country stay secure.

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Two years have passed, actually centuries, and the Kra Canal project is still waiting to take off. Thailand scrapping its deal with China and the trio of India, Australia and the United States chipping in, showing their interest in building a waterway are just some new additions to the long Kra story which took birth in 1677 — the year Thai king Narai commissioned French engineer de Lamar to study the possibility of having a new route from Songkhla on the Malaysian-Thai peninsula to the Burmese city of Marid which once belonged to Thailand.

The kings changed, and so did the surveyors, but the project never took off. With no funds to dig a canal across the narrow isthmus, the Thais have been sitting on the plan for centuries now. Considering the environmental impact, construction of railroads and bridges instead of a canal too has been discussed fervently. However, the good thing is that, even as attractive offers from all over the globe kept pouring in all these years, Thailand hasn't zeroed in on China as the reliable 'regional ally' to build the canal. It would have only resulted in all East Asian countries, and not just Thailand, staying 'insecure' forever.

<img class="wp-image-14716 size-full" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/graph.jpg" alt="" width="597" height="553" /> Graphics courtesy: Bangkokpost.com

China has been desperate to fund and construct the Kra Canal for decades now. Including it as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in 2013 was a mere formality. It would have provided the Chinese an alternative to Strait of Malacca choke point and a second entrance to the Indian Ocean by connecting the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea.

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In these times when President Xi Jinping says "no country or individual can stop the historical pace of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," allowing China to take control of a strategic game-changer project like this would have only ended up in a huge self-induced catastrophe.

It was in 2005 that China's strategy of establishing a foothold in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) through a "String of Pearls" — naval bases from South China Sea till the Mediterranean — was exposed in a classified report 'Energy Futures in Asia' presented to the then US Defense Secretary Donald H Rumsfeld by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. The Kra Canal was very much a part of China's expansionist designs which stretched from Vietnam, Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and till as far as Sudan.

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While the idea of building the Kra Canal has still not transformed into a reality, India becoming an important player in the IOR has given the Chinese many sleepless nights since Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, made the famous "Confluence of the Two Seas" speech in the Indian Parliament on August 22, 2007.

"We are now at a point at which the Confluence of the Two Seas is coming into being. The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A "broader Asia" that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form. Our two countries have the ability — and the responsibility — to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparence," Abe had said famously.

The Quad — the United States, Australia, India, and Japan — turning into a 'Quad-Plus' initiative with the inclusion of other Indo-Pacific countries will also help build a strong opposition against a rogue state like China in the post-Covid world.

Earlier this year, a senior US State Department official had said that there was "virtually no daylight" in the US and India's approach to the region. "The US-India partnership stands upon a shared commitment to uphold the rule of law, freedom of navigation, democratic values, counterterrorism cooperation, and private sector-led economic growth. So it is not surprising that there is virtually no daylight in our approaches to the Indo-Pacific," said Jonathan Henick, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia.

Things are already gathering pace as you read this. The Indian Navy is currently engaged in a two-day Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the East Indian Ocean Region. It involves participation of Australia's HMAS Hobart and Indian Naval Ships Sahyadri and Karmuk. In addition, Indian Maritime Patrol Aircraft and helicopters from both the sides are also taking part. The exercise, aimed at enhancing interoperability, improving understanding and imbibing best practices from each other, would involve advanced surface and anti-air exercises including weapon firings, seamanship exercises, naval manoeuvres and Cross Deck Flying Operations.

China meanwhile, besides still pondering over what really went wrong in Bangkok, is planning its next move to create more ruckus in the waters and up in the mountains..