A ‘land bridge’ across Thailand’s Kra Isthmus: What is this centuries-old idea, resurrected again?

The concept of a ‘land bridge’ across Thailand’s Kra Isthmus is centuries old. Often touted as an alternative to the congested Malacca Strait, the shortest sea route between India and China, the Kra Isthmus land bridge would drastically reduce shipping times and costs for several countries—a high-stakes economic advantage. This enduring idea has been resurrected again in recent years due to advancements in technology and global demand for efficient shipping routes.

The Kra Isthmus is the narrowest part of Thailand, separating the Andaman Sea, an arm of the Indian Ocean, from the Gulf of Thailand. Building a canal through it has been envisioned since the 17th century when French engineers surveyed the area for King Narai of Ayutthaya, an ancient kingdom in Thailand. Despite periodic revival of the idea, political, economic, and environmental issues have kept the project from getting beyond the planning stage.

The proposed ‘land bridge’ would consist of a deep-sea port on both sides of the isthmus linked by rail, effectively creating a shortcut for shiploads of goods. By using this passage, vessels would no longer need to navigate around Malaysia and Singapore, saving as much as 1,200 kilometers travel distance, slashing shipping time significantly.

One of the major reasons behind the renewed interest in the Kra Isthmus project is the increasing traffic through the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The ‘land bridge’, in this sense, could minimize potential shipping congestion and provide an additional route to facilitate global trade.

Moreover, the emergence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aiming to boost connectivity and cooperation across Eurasia, has brought the idea back into the limelight. Advocates argue the Kra Isthmus ‘land bridge’ would beautifully complement the BRI, enhancing regional economic integration and strengthening trade links.

However, the project remains contentious. Concerns range from the potential environmental damage to the financing to the geopolitical implications. There’s also skepticism about its commercial viability given the substantial costs. Ultimately, the resurrection of the Kra Isthmus ‘land bridge’ is a complex synthesis of economic promise and pragmatic concerns.

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