BANGKOK, Thailand -- Oil and other cargo on ships sailing between the
Middle East and East Asia, will arrive much faster than today's route
past Singapore, when Thailand constructs a short overland connection
linking the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand, officials said.

"This future transport and cargo exchange gateway will bring down
transport costs, by bypassing heavy traffic in the Malacca Strait,"
Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob said.

Government survey crews and engineers are plotting a sleek, upside
down L-shaped route more than 70 miles long coast-to-coast, with a
railway and highway side-by-side the entire way.

"If built with the help of China, it could fit within the Belt and
Road Initiative, linking to Chinese-backed railways and making Beijing
less reliant on the Strait of Malacca," ASEAN Today said in an
editorial on March 20.

"Thailand has made it clear that -- while it’s happy to build a close
relationship to Beijing -- it doesn’t want to be seen as beholden to
foreign influence.

"Thailand will likely look for support from multiple partners across
the region," it said.

The Singapore-based publication focuses on the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Brunei, Cambodia,
Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand
and Vietnam.

China is already extending its railway system south across Laos toward
Bangkok, which is linked to this country's port services along the
Gulf of Thailand.

The "Land Bridge" would present China with a much faster way to roll
imports and exports to and from the warm Andaman Sea, improving access
to waters which arch-foe India regards as vital to its lengthy east

If hostilities between Washington and Beijing deteriorate, the
Indo-Pacific region could become a dangerously fluid chessboard.

China could become vulnerable to U.S. pressure applied to Singapore,
to tighten ships' passageway through the Strait of Malacca which is
also used by the U.S. 7th Fleet.

"Singapore enjoys strong and longstanding defense, economic and
political relations with the U.S.," according to Singapore's foreign

If the Strait of Malacca becomes a U.S.-dominated choke hold for oil
shipments, China may be still be able to use the Land Bridge, because
Bangkok prefers to maintain good relations with both Beijing and

Thailand emphasizes that the Land Bridge will be especially efficient
at helping to transport oil from the Strait of Hormuz to China, Japan,
and South Korea.

Ranong does not yet have train service, but is reachable by highway.
Thai trains have a station at Chumphon.

Ports on both sides of southern Thailand's slender peninsula exist at
Ranong and Chumphon but would require more development.

Using the Land Bridge, ships arriving from the Middle East for example
could unload cargo at Thailand's southwest Ranong Port on the Andaman
Sea -- near Myanmar's southeast border.

The Land Bridge would transport those cargo containers north, overland
along the Andaman coast.

About half-way, the route would veer east inland and cross the
peninsula where rugged mountains are lower in elevation.

Continuing straight into Chumphon Port on Thailand's southeast coast,
cargo would be unloaded at the commercially active Gulf of Thailand
which has attracted international shipping for centuries.

Cargo would then be reloaded onto ships in the gulf sailing northeast
to China, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere along the Pacific.

Or vice versa from Chumphon to Ranong.

Ships currently must sail further south and go around the peninsula
where it ends at Singapore, just below Malaysia.

That narrow, congested Strait of Malacca is wedged between Indonesia's
northern Sumatra island and Singapore, which services shippers' needs.

Some vessels avoid the Malacca Strait and choose a much longer, less
crowded route by chugging south of the Equator, skirting the
Indonesian archipelago's southern beaches.

"The location of the government's Land Bridge project in the south --
touted as a more convenient way to transport goods from the Middle
East to the Pacific region -- will be decided by June," Transport
Minister Saksayam said according to the Bangkok Post.

If finalized, it would doom decades of dreams about digging a much
more expensive Kra Canal -- Thailand's version of the Panama Canal --
on a similar route across the Kra Isthmus, linking Ranong and

That canal would span the peninsula's narrowest width by dredging a
deeper 40-mile-long stretch of the Kra Buri River near Ranong Port.

Upriver at Kra Buri town, much more difficult and dangerous digging
across low mountains would be needed to etch a 30-mile-long, east-west
canal along Highway Four.

That would reach the town of Chumphon, where the Chumphon River dumps
into the Gulf of Thailand, allowing the Kra Canal's ships to continue

During the 17th century, European and Thai leaders talked about
hacking through the jungle but lacked the will, finances and
technology to make the Kra Canal.

Arrangements to finance the Land Bridge were not made public.

Presumably, Bangkok would require a major injection of foreign investment.

China, the U.S., Australia and India appeared interested in helping to
build the Kra Canal, but the price for Thai partners spiraled too

Both the canal and the land route increase the risk of sea pollution,
oil spills and other environmental havoc in an area largely dependent
on coastal fishing.

During the past several years, the U.S. has been training Thailand's
navy in submarine warfare to guard its ports and waters along the
Andaman and gulf.

"It is important to maintain relations with Thailand, because they
have outstanding visibility in the maritime domain in a critical part
of the world," said then-U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, in 2018.

China has been trying to sell three submarines to Thailand to boost
its relatively weak navy.

During World War II, Japanese forces were suspected of planning to
attack the Kra Isthmus from the sea on December 1, 1941, to soften the
zone for a land attack from Gulf of Thailand, according to Pearl
Harbor History Associates' official archives.

Tokyo apparently wanted to occupy the territory between Bangkok and
Singapore, so Japanese forces could block all land routes between the
two capitals and also try to control shipping past Singapore.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book,
"Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available at