Thailand the missing link in China’s Maritime Silk Road

In a policy shift, Thai PM Prayut Chan-ocha says state agencies will study the construction of a long-envisioned ocean-linking canal China craves for economic and security reasons


By Benjamin Zawacki

After demurring for years, Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha last week ordered national planning and security agencies to look into building a possible canal across the narrow Isthmus of Kra in the kingdom’s southern region.

The canal is a major focus of a book I published last year, in which I argue that China will eventually lead efforts on the long-envisioned but never realized construction.

Indeed, the order came a month after China’s ambassador to Thailand confirmed the canal as part of his country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s US$1 trillion flagship project for global economic expansion.

Although the BRI — including a “Maritime Silk Road” — is a logical undertaking for the most relentless economy in history, less discussed is its possible role under a concurrent security-driven policy.

Consistent with much of China’s economic outreach in South and Southeast Asia since the turn of the century, its Silk Road can also be seen as a geo-political project aimed at power projection. The benign rubric of development, integration, and “connectivity” — already challenged on the grounds of accompanying “debt traps” — is thus subject to further scrutiny from a security standpoint.

The Silk Road’s architects likely include military as well as market analysts, projecting not only economic returns but the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ability to prevail in a regional conflict.

This accounts for the weakness of counter-arguments to a canal; namely that construction costs would outweigh the savings of time and money that a short-cut connecting the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea would provide.

The past 15 years have seen a host of Beijing-backed projects yield less than stellar economic results, but whose main objective has been to expand China’s geo-political footprint in the region while checking those of the US, Japan, and Taiwan.

Such is the privilege of state-supported banking and industrial sectors, in which the Politburo’s (inter)national strategy can readily absorb tactical economic losses.

Nor are the economics any longer water-tight—or limited to China as a canal’s chief financier: Singapore would be the country most directly and adversely affected, as it sits atop the Malacca Strait, the very stretch of water a canal in Thailand would circumvent.

Through the Strait passes nearly half the world’s annual shipping fleet and two-thirds of its oil and liquefied natural gas. On a daily basis Malacca receives three times greater the oil traffic of the Suez Canal and 15 times that of Panama’s channel.

Considerable money has changed hands each time the Thai parliament has tabled a canal proposal, but Singapore would not win a bidding war of influence with the Chinese.

Why? Because no single nation is more dependent on the Malacca Strait than China, whose two-way share of trade and energy in the channel exceeds the global aggregate — the result of lacking direct littoral access to the Indian Ocean.

The world’s most populous nation and second largest economy is landlocked from the warm waters west of the Strait. And dependency is vulnerability in China’s case, given that the Strait is patrolled and policed by the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet.

To be sure, the fast-increasing number of cargo ships traversing the narrow passage, combined with their ever-growing girth, poses a common challenge. And for most regional countries America’s naval presence is not unwelcome.

But for a China seeking regional hegemony, the age-old “Malacca dilemma” demands a vested alternative to the Strait, and it is in that light that a Kra Canal—and the Silk Road more broadly—should be seen.

Eyes on the prize

While the BRI expands westward, China’s primary focus is to its east and south: a “first chain” of disputed islands and territorial claims in the South China Sea, both of which include and ultimately revolve around Taiwan.

Beijing has made it clear that it wants full and formal reunification with Taiwan by 2049, and that it will take the island by force “if necessary.” As prerequisite and preparation, it is likely to seize Japan’s Senkaku Islands at an earlier date, either via a “short, sharp war”, or in the manner it did the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

That seizure featured an overwhelming convergence of “civilian” fishing boats backed by the Chinese Coast Guard in less a use of force than a fait accompli.

Fishing boats played a similar role during China’s mid-2014 confrontation over an oil rig it had positioned within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, and in the Philippines’ Spratly Islands in mid-2017, one of which was “claimed” by a Chinese fishing boat’s five-star red flag.

In a possible “dry run”, last year also saw some 260 fishing boats flood Japanese waters near the Senkakus, again flanked by six Coast Guard vessels. China fields the largest fishing fleet in the world, and four months ago placed its Coast Guard under the command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as with four other countries, stem from Beijing’s 2009 assertion that all territories within a “Nine-Dash Line” on a map of the South China Sea belong to it.

Although the map was drawn in 1948 and categorically dismissed as a basis for claims by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016, its ramifications made Beijing’s contempt for the ruling a foregone conclusion: the map awards China 90% of the Sea and increases its overall geographic size by nearly 50%.

Since 2013—the same year the BRI was announced—China has constructed some 3,200 acres of artificial islands within the “nine dashes” of the map, some within the sovereign maritime territory of other states. Militarization of the islands commenced in 2015, with as much emphasis on controlling the skies as the sea.

Runways capable of accommodating fighter jets now exist on seven artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, complementing naval and aviation support facilities on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs.

Six months ago, Chinese bombers with long-range and nuclear-strike capabilities landed for the first time on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, which already featured surface-to-air missiles. These are essentially aircraft carriers that cannot be moved—which is the point.

Encroachment and militarization invite a response, and have already resulted in deadly maritime clashes with regional states and increased “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea by the US. Should China declare an aerial defense identification zone above the waters, a new front for confrontation would open.

A short conflict confined to the East China Sea might not require more forces and resources than Beijing has at its disposal along its eastern coast. But Chinese claims in the South China Sea extend as far afield as Indonesia and Malaysia, whose coasts define the narrow Strait of Malacca.

Now a democracy, Indonesia is historically close to the US, while recent months have seen Malaysia push back on both China’s maritime aggression and its Silk Road. For clashes occurring there to be decided swiftly, China could require ships or supplies from waters west of the Strait, even as its adversaries worked with Singapore and the Seventh Fleet to close the passage off.

Between the East China Sea and the South China Sea sits Taiwan, the crown jewel in the Middle Kingdom’s bid for regional hegemony. More likely than an escalation or expansion of violence elsewhere, is an outright military move by Beijing against Taiwan that triggers a wider conflict.

China would be powerless to forestall US involvement, already present and treaty-bound to defend Taiwan. But its occupation and militarization of the disputed islands north and south of Taiwan is designed precisely to deny their rightful claimants’ ability to assist. Taiwan would thus be “surrounded” by Chinese assets, allowing the PLA to move not only from mainland China but from all sides.

All quiet on the western front

Beijing would prefer a brief and decisive war but knows better – and its maritime Silk Road could potentially play a supporting role. For at the same time that it increases “connectivity” between and among the Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea, it connects those bodies with the contentious waters east of the Malacca Strait.

That is, it methodically and progressively addresses China’s “Malacca Dilemma.” In times of peace, this will contribute substantially to both Chinese and regional economic growth, serving container vessels, tankers and cargo planes from around the world.

But should conflict erupt over Taiwan, the South China Sea, or both, the Silk Road could also serve as a ready supply line and secondary locus for the surface ships, submarines and fighter jets of the PLA.

The BRI’s unspoken anchor was established in mid-2017 in Djibouti: China’s first overseas military base. Itself a projection of force, the base affords further deployment across the waters to which China is otherwise landlocked. The base also gives China (Djibouti’s top foreign investor) transit control of 10% of global annual oil exports.

Moving eastward, China’s military presence is less overt but undeniable, primarily via sales of arms and materiel and in forces sent to protect the Silk Road investment and coastal infrastructure—much of which is clearly “dual use” in nature if not intent.

Beijing’s military relations with Pakistan, frequently at odds with the US and historically so with US ally India, have increased markedly in recent years. Not coincidentally, the coastal city of Gwadar is a major focus of Silk Road investment toward a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and a deep-sea port.

Pakistan utilizes a host of Chinese surface warships and recently purchased eight submarines, four of which are to be built on-site by Chinese engineers.

In Bangladesh, China is similarly investing heavily in a major industrial park in the port city of Chittagong—where two Chinese guided-missile frigates and a supply ship docked in early 2016. This was followed by the delivery of two Chinese submarines later that year, whose crews were slated to include Chinese sailors for training purposes. In June 2018, the Bangladesh Air Force signed a contract for 23 Chinese training jets.

In between these nations and out at sea, an expanded airport in the Maldives and an expanded Colombo Harbor in Sri Lanka—where Chinese submarines twice docked in 2014—are being financed and built largely by Beijing.

Last year, after failing to repay its loan under the Silk Road scheme, Sri Lanka leased a 70% stake in its Hambantota air and seaport to China for 99 years. Despite assurances to the contrary, few believe that the island nation has seen the last of the Chinese PLA Navy.

Entering Southeast Asia via Myanmar, pipelines running the length of the country and linking China’s landlocked southwest with the Bay of Bengal, pre-date the BRI. They have been Beijing’s chief response to its “Malacca Dilemma” for two decades. Since 2016, Silk Road investment in a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor has aimed to bolster the pipelines with transportation links and a deep sea port at Kyaukpyu.

As with some of the ports elsewhere, political and/or legal limitations have been placed on China’s use of Kyaukpyu for military purposes. Yet, Chinese military links with Myanmar are deeper than anywhere in South Asia, and Kyaukpyu is its closest asset to the waters east of the divide created by peninsular Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. Conflicts have a history of changing the rules, particularly those with stakes as high as those presented by Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The missing link

Even if China prevails between Djibouti and Myanmar, what even Kyaukpyu fails to deliver is direct maritime access to the Gulf of Thailand and beyond. Under Silk Road projects concurrently underway, China’s “Malacca Dilemma” can be substantially mitigated but not eliminated.

Enter Thailand, whose official status under the scheme has been uncertain from the start, but whose location makes it indispensable. When Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha was excluded from a BRI forum in Beijing last year, reportedly due to slow progress on a joint high-speed rail project connecting China and Thailand, conventional wisdom had his country as a peripheral, even expendable, part of the Silk Road.

In evidence to the contrary, Prayut felt compelled to respond with an equally bold move, using exceptional authority under Thailand’s constitution to override legal restrictions on the employment of Chinese engineers and declare a summary end to the project’s delays.

Whether continued setbacks signal ambivalence to China’s expansion or a more likely combination of corruption and incompetence, is unclear, but are of grave concern to Beijing either way.

The train is part of Beijing’s regional “connectivity” plan to link southwestern China to Thailand via Laos, and includes an eventual line down Thailand’s peninsula through Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.

While this extension would follow Thailand’s eastern rather than western shore, and so not afford another indirect link to the Andaman Sea, it would connect China to the Malacca Strait’s primary port and staunch US ally. As elsewhere, the Silk Road’s security element in Thailand is implicit but hard to miss, and follows 15 years of ever-deepening Sino-Thai “mil-to-mil” relations.

Another test concerns the Thai navy’s 2017 purchase of a Chinese submarine, with two more in the pipeline, whose construction recently got underway. Whether they are docked at the naval facility in Phang Nga on the Andaman Sea or at the Sattahip base on the Gulf of Thailand belies Bangkok’s uncertain standing between the two global powers.

Beijing would strongly prefer the Gulf for its connectivity to contested eastern waters and to US assets: Sattahip has hosted American ships and subs since the Vietnam War and is a mere 18 kilometers from the U-Tapao airbase, a US “Cooperative Security Location.” Washington has registered its opposition privately.

Of chief concern is Thailand’s ability and reliability to deliver on the missing link, a canal across its narrow isthmus. Although the military will retain substantial political power through an appointed Senate, if not formally in elected office, polls scheduled for early 2019 are almost certain to render Thai governance even less decisive and efficient.

Prayut’s recent order for a review was in response to a proposal by the Thai Canal Association, whose leadership includes several retired generals and members of the influential Thai-Chinese Economic and Cultural Association.

A number of Chinese investors are in support of the project, and a company experienced in land reclamation and construction in the South China Sea has reportedly expressed interest.

For its part, the US has no official position on a Kra canal. It did not feature in Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, to which China’s BRI was a response, and thus far has not been part of Trump’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy or the Senate’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, the latest volley.

Thailand is an American treaty ally via both the 1954 Manila Pact and 1962 Thanat-Rusk agreement, and was named a major non-NATO ally in 2003 for supporting US counterterrorism policies after 9/11. But for Beijing that is precisely the point: the Cold War ended almost three decades ago, the War on Terror has lost definition and direction, and allies change—especially those with a history of doing so.

A direct link between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, finally ending China’s “Malacca Dilemma”, will come down to economic pressure and geo-political ambition. While its BRI dutifully brings economic benefits across the continent through commerce and “connectivity”, China can be expected to remain patient, persistent and purposeful.

At the same time, should the next major conflict occur in Asia, part of the road leading there will have been paved in silk.

Benjamin Zawacki (@benjaminzawacki) is a Bangkok-based analyst and author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China (Zed Books 2017)

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