Skip to content


Luis Adrián Salgado Figueroa

China-India conflict: Why does Thailand have the last word?

- Thailand is in a dilemma before which it must take sides in the China-India conflict.

China-India conflict: Why does Thailand have the last word?

While the conflict between the United States and China (labelled as the new Cold War) hogs all the media attention, there is a warmer and more tangible war: the China-India conflict. This situation has caused the loss of at least 20 lives [1] when a territorial dispute arose in the high region of the Himalayas. At the same time, China is in the execution of a plan that would allow it to "surround" its adversary thanks to a series of naval bases known within geopolitical analysis as "Necklace of Pearls" [2].

Within the Chinese intentions to dominate the Indian Ocean – and with it India – there is a vulnerability that has called for immediate action: The Strait of Malacca. It is a seaway that separates Singapore and Sumatra through which a large amount of the maritime traffic that goes to the West must pass, since it is the fastest way in the region to South Asia. Naturally, both the Chinese commercial fleet and its navy circulate through the strait.

Seeking to eliminate any pressure points on its military apparatus, China has begun what could well be the most ambitious infrastructure project within its OBOR (One Belt, One Road) initiative: a canal traversing the Kra Isthmus in southern Thailand – the narrowest point on the Malay Peninsula – which would open up a second sea route from China to the Indian Ocean.

The canal proposal brings both benefits and problems to Thailand.

This could allow the Chinese navy to quickly move ships between its newly built bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean without having to detour the more than 1,100 km south to round the tip of Malaysia. That would make the Thailand canal a crucial strategic asset for China on par with putting a noose around Thailand's narrow southern neck. If Thailand allows China to invest the project's estimated cost of $30bn[3], it may find that the associated conditions are tied up forever.

After arduous controversy, the channel now appears to have gained wide support among Thailand's political elite and there is already a date set for its discussion within an ad hoc parliamentary committee. Even the historically objective Bangkok Post has published an editorial column in favor [4] of the channel. This can be seen as a victory for Chinese influence since, despite a long history of relations and ties between the US and Thailand, the latter has apparently chosen to lean towards Beijing.

There is controversy in Thailand over the influx of "Chinese propaganda" in the media (Photo by Ye Aung THU/AFP).

A Thai channel would fit perfectly into Xi Jinping's plans to encircle India. The Chinese Navy is actively pushing west into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, opening an East African logistics base in [Djibouti]( -chess/) [5] and carrying out joint exercises in the region with the navies of Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran and even Russia. The plethora of Chinese-sponsored port infrastructure projects across the region only adds to the sense of cornering in the Indian community.

As a consequence, India's response has reverted to military readiness for any possible maritime encounter. In August, the Hindustan Times reported [6] that the country was planning significant upgrades to its air and naval facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar islands – with the specific purpose of countering China. The archipelago is part of the Indian union and has a population of less than half a million. However, its strategic position intersects the shipping lanes leading from the Malacca Strait to the Indian Ocean and has the potential to quarantine the proposed Thai channel.

The islands enjoy a privileged position (Image by The Sankei Shumbun).

The Thai dilemma in the face of the China-India conflict

The Strait of Malacca has been a key corridor of world trade for centuries, if not millennia. Italian adventurer Marco Polo sailed across the strait in 1292 on his way home from Kublai Khan's court. Currently, more than 80,000 ships a year transit through the strait [7] which is a key corridor carrying oil to East Asia and returning manufactured goods. The prosperity of modern Singapore has been built on its strategic location at the southeastern end of the strait.

That prosperity towards itself, building industrial parks and logistics centers at both ends of what could become one of Asia's main transit arteries. Added to this, the current route through the Strait of Malacca has almost reached its safe limit in terms of the volume of shipping it can handle. Current alternatives to Malacca, such as the Sunda Strait in Indonesia, would require east-west cargoes to be diverted further out of their way, thus lending greater certainty to the Chinese project.

Although there are alternatives, they all present a loss in distance/time (Image by TCCES).

The current Thai canal proposal, known as Route 9A, would involve two parallel canals, each 30 meters deep, 180 meters wide and 120km long at sea level from Songkhla in the Gulf of Thailand to Krabi in the Andaman Sea [8]. However, by accepting the proposed project, Thailand risks being split in two.

Thailand is facing an active insurgency in its three southernmost provinces, which are predominantly Muslim in religion and predominantly ethnic Malay. The canal could become a symbolic border between "mainland" Thailand in the north and a separatist movement in the south. Once the canals have been dug, it would be impossible to fill them in and if Thailand were ever to split in two, the Thai Canal could be the fault along which the split cracks.

Who does not know its history…

Panama. When Panamanian secessionists revolted in 1903, the United States Navy intervened to ensure the new country's independence. The United States Isthmian Canal Commission was installed a year later, and the Panama Canal finally opened in 1914. Panama has been a virtual protectorate of the United States ever since.

The Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, was the center of British and French military intervention until 1956. It remained a geopolitical football until 1975, and even today Egypt faces an Islamist insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula on the other side. of the channel [9].

Today, Thailand's territorial integrity is relatively secure, but a successful canal project would reshape the political geography of Southeast Asia. It would bring China in as a permanent security partner that could not be easily kicked out. Along with planned investments in the ports of Sihanoukville in Cambodia and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, China will view the Thai canal as a strategic waterway connecting its string of pearls. Therefore, if a hostile government in Bangkok ever threatened to cut that thread, it is not inconceivable that China would support an independence movement in the south and seize control of the canal in an intervention justified by the need to protect its own interests.

Perhaps knowing the inherent dangers of the canal, Thailand's Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob recently said [10] that he preferred to build railways and highways across the isthmus rather than a canal. Chidchob said the government has budgeted funds to study the construction of two new seaports, one on each side of the isthmus, as well as a "land bridge" to transport goods between them.

The final word

A Thai channel would pose a threat to the United States and its allies. However, faced with such a risk, there is already a containment plan that consists of improving the Indian national forward bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The real concern is that this whole situation would further undermine the independence of poor Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, which have comparatively weak civil societies and are highly vulnerable to Chinese interference. Additionally, the canal endangers Thailand due to domestic problems. Reasons why the fate of the project remains uncertain.


    [1] Biswas, C. “India-China clash: 20 Indian troops killed in Ladakh fighting”, , consultado el 1 de agosto de 2020.

    [2] Hughes, L. “String of Pearls Redux: China, India and a Cambodian Base”,, consultado el 1 de agosto de 2020.

    [3] FORUM. “Canal Conundrum”,, consultado el 1 de agosto de 2020.

    [4] Bangkok Post Editorial. “Time to revisit canal project”,, consultado el 2 de Agosto de 2020.

    [5] Cabestan, J-P. “China’s Djibouti naval base increasing its power”,, consultado el 2 de agosto de 2020.

    [6] Gupta, S. “India’s answer to China-backed Thai Canal plan is a huge military upgrade in islands”,, consultado el 2 de agosto de 2020.

    [7] Hand, M. “EXCLUSIVE: Malacca Straits VLCC traffic doubles in a decade as shipping traffic hits all-time high in 2017”,, consultado el 2 de agosto de 2020.

    [8] Abdul, R. “A descriptive method for analysing the Kra Canal decision on maritime business patterns in Malaysia”,, consultado el 2 de agosto de 2020.

    [9] Thaler, D. “Making Headway Against the Sinai Insurgency”,, consultado el 2 de agosto de 2020.

    [10] Bloomberg. “Thailand studies Malacca bypass to link Indian and Pacific oceans”,, consultado el 2 de agosto de 2020.

The best content in your inbox

Join our newsletter with the best of CEMERI

Related articles

Salgado, Luis. “Conflicto China-India: ¿Por qué Tailandia tiene la última palabra?.” CEMERI, 6 sept. 2022,