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    Containers are loaded onto a cargo ship at the Tianjin port in China

    China's 'Suez Canal': Beijing Wants to Build 'Golden Waterway' in Asia

    © AP Photo / Andy Wong
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    China explores ways to bring to life an ambitious infrastructure project that could alter Asia's strategic landscape. Beijing wants to build a 1,200 kilometer long canal across southern Thailand that would provide a lucrative alternative to existing shipping routes and also contribute to the country's maritime security.

    Chinese experts refer to the project, which drew its inspiration from the Panama Canal and Suez Canal, as a "golden waterway" or "golden seaway."

    The idea goes back centuries

    The initiative originated in 1677 when Thai King Narai asked the French to build a canal in the narrowest part of the Malay Peninsula, known as Kra Isthmus. But the technology available at the time was simply not good enough to make it happen.

    ​The idea surfaced many times over the centuries, but it really took off last year when the China-Thailand Kra Infrastructure Investment and Development and Asia Union Group signed a memorandum of understanding. Both Chinese and Thai governments later said that they were not involved in the project.

    If built, the new waterway would allow the ships to bypass the narrow Strait of Malacca, cutting their travelling time to China by 72 hours. The project would help to cut costs on oil shipments from the Middle East and Africa and would also bring extra business to the Chinese ports in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

    In addition, the canal would also provide a necessary boost to Thailand's economy through foreign investment, infrastructure development, toll fees, ship servicing, etc. 

    Container terminal in the port of Dalian, China
    © AP Photo / Elizabeth Dalziel, File
    Container terminal in the port of Dalian, China

    Who will benefit from Asia's 'Suez Canal'

    The project could have "a major impact on both the commercial and strategic landscape of the entire region," expert on China's security policy Lyle J. Goldstein wrote for the National Interest.

    "At a minimum, the canal could move the locus of dynamic regional and global maritime trade hundreds of miles to the north, but it could also serve as a major enabler for China's ambitious 'one belt, one road' strategy as well, " the Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, noted.

    Chinese analysts say that the canal, estimated to cost nearly $30 billion, would not only benefit China. According to the Chinese Foreign Policy journal, Japan, South Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and other regional nations would be better off from its construction.

    For their part, Malaysia and Singapore would hardly be happy if the project is indeed carried out.

    This photo taken on January 8, 2012 shows a worker operating hoists to unload containers at the Kaikou port, in south China's Hainan province
    © AFP 2019 /
    This photo taken on January 8, 2012 shows a worker operating hoists to unload containers at the Kaikou port, in south China's Hainan province

    Unexpected challenge to the 'golden waterway'

    The project might look lucrative when viewed from China, but, perhaps surprisingly, Thailand has reservations.

    On the one hand, Bangkok is worried that the construction could deal major damage to the environment. On the other, there are concerns that separatists in southern Thailand could target the infrastructure project.

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    Tags:
    cost-cutting, infrastructure project, canal, shipping, Suez Canal, economy, trade, China, Thailand
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