China’s strongest ally in the South China Sea – Thailand, is quietly but firmly pushing back against Beijing. It has decided to not only postpone the procurement of two submarines from China but has also shelved the Chinese proposal for building a canal in the Bay of Bengal replacing it with its own project.
Following public outrage over the US$724 million purchase of two submarines from China, Thailand has now delayed the deal. Under a 2015 deal, Thailand was one of the first countries to buy Chinese naval hardware and finalized its purchase of three submarines in 2017, with the first one expected to be delivered in 2023.
The order for two more submarines was approved this month for US$723.9 million by the parliamentary committee – a move that saw public outrage as the country suffers from a declining economy.
“The navy will negotiate with China to delay for another year,” said Anucha Burapachaisri, a government spokesperson. “The prime minister has given priority to the concern of the public who are worried about the economy,” he added.
As reported earlier by EurAsian Times, the Kra Canal is China’s attempt at solving its ‘Malacca problem’. The 120 kilometers long Thai canal is an integral part of China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative, which, in itself, is a key constituent of the ambitious One Belt One Road project.
The Malacca strait is one of the busiest routes with reportedly, 84,000 ships passing through it every year carrying around 30 percent of global sea trade. It connects the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean. By building the Kra Canal, China will be able to bypass the Malacca strait cutting both time and distance.
“The real concern is that it [Thai Canal] would further undermine the independence of poor southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, which have comparatively weak civil societies that are highly vulnerable to Chinese interference. And it absolutely imperils Thailand,” a report in the Foreign Policy.
The step to replace this proposal with its own project would come as a relief to New Delhi which was spooked by increasing Chinese foothold in the high seas. To counter the increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, India is working on the military up-gradation in its island territories.
According to top military officials cited by HT, the airstrip at INS Kohassa, Shibpur in North Andamans and the Campbell strip at Nicobar will be upgraded into full-fledged fighter bases.
According to Bloomberg, Thailand is looking to construct a land passageway that would connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans, bypassing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
“The [Malaccal] Strait has become quite congested,” Transport Minister Saksiam Chidchob said in an interview. “Using an alternative route through Thailand would cut shipping time by more than two days, which is very valuable for businesses.”
Thailand is planning to develop two deep seaports on either side of the country’s southern coasts, and link them via highway and rail, according to Saksiam. The 100-kilometer “land bridge” would replace an existing proposal to dredge a canal through the isthmus.
That would cause too much destruction to the environment, he said. The government has approved a 75 million baht ($2.4 million) budget for a study to examine the construction of two seaports, and another 90 million baht to examine highways and rails linking them, he added.
Thailand’s pushback comes as a favorable sign for the US and India who can effectively counter Chinese expansionism. With barely any allies left in the South China Sea, this is seen as another geopolitical defeat for China.