The Next Front in the India-China Conflict Could Be a Thai Canal

The Next Front in the India-China Conflict Could Be a Thai Canal

India is beefing up its island defenses as Beijing seeks a quicker route to the Indian Ocean.

Forget the new Cold War in the Pacific between the United States and China. There’s a much warmer war already going on between India and China that has killed at least 20 on a disputed border in the high Himalayas. At sea, China is attempting to encircle India with a series of alliances and naval bases evocatively known as the string of pearls. China’s greatest vulnerability in its strategy to dominate the Indian Ocean—and thereby India—is the Malacca Strait, a narrow sea lane separating Singapore and Sumatra, through which so much marine traffic must pass that it’s both a lifeline for China’s seaborne trade and the main path for its navy toward South Asia, and points further west. With regards to China’s rivalry with India—and its strategic ambitions in Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and beyond—anything that reduces the dependency on one narrow chokepoint between potentially hostile powers is vital.

That’s where the most ambitious of all of Beijing’s regional infrastructure projects—the controversial Belt and Road Initiative—comes in: a long-mooted canal across southern Thailand’s Kra Isthmus, the narrowest point of the Malay peninsula, which would open a second sea route from China to the Indian Ocean. This could allow the Chinese navy to quickly move ships between its newly constructed bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean without diverting more than 700 miles south to round the tip of Malaysia. That would make the Thai canal a crucial strategic asset for China—and a potential noose around Thailand’s narrow southern neck. If Thailand allows China to invest up to $30 billion in digging the canal, it may find that the associated strings are attached forever.

Long controversial, the canal now seems to have gained widespread support among Thailand’s political elite, with a parliamentary committee due to make recommendations on the project this month. Even the historically critical Bangkok Post has editorialized in favor of the canal. Chinese influence operations in Thailand have probably helped shape public opinion. And despite its nominal alliance with the United States, Thailand has tilted strongly toward China ever since the United States refused to recognize a military takeover of the Thai government in 2014.

A Thai canal would fit neatly into Beijing’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 and conducting joint exercises in the region with the navies of MyanmarBangladeshPakistanIran, and even Russia. The plethora of China-sponsored port infrastructure projects throughout the region only add to the impression of encirclement. India has responded by gearing up for potential future confrontations with China at sea. In August, the Hindustan Times reported that India was planning significant upgrades of its air and naval facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, specifically to counter China. An Indian union territory with a population of fewer than half a million, the strategic archipelago intersects the sea lanes leading from the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean. They also have the potential to quarantine the proposed Thai canal.