Suez canal Egypt
Suez Canal: There are plans for a counterpart in Thailand Reuters

Engineers have produced a plan to build a canal across Thailand so that shipping can cross south-east Asia more swiftly, as well as bypassing pirates in the Strait of Malacca.

The Korean Railway Research Institute has drawn up a blueprint for a "rail canal" across the narrowest part of Thailand, to link the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.

The project, costed at $4.8bn (£3.14bn) would provide a faster route for shipping in the region. It would cut 1,200 miles and a minimum of two days off the current journey between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.

The canal would also enable shipping to avoid the hazards of piracy in the Strait of Malacca. The Strait is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, seeing 60,000 vessel passages annually. A quarter of the world's commercial freight passes through it, including around 80% of China's oil imports.

The proposed route crosses Thailand's Kra Isthmus, between Kra Buri on the west coast to Chumpon on the east. Jinyu Choi, the director general of the Korean Railway Research Institute, is set to present the proposal to Prajin Juntong, Thailand's transport minister, in August.

However, the scheme is only the latest of a lengthy line stretching as far back as 1677. They include a project put forward in 1882 by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal. So far they have all failed, for two main reasons. The Isthmus's elevated and undulating terrain would require very extensive excavation efforts. And Thailand's long running political instability is a strong deterrent

Moreover, the current scheme is raising diplomatic hackles. China has declared the project to be part of its projected "maritime Silk Road". This development has caused concern in the US, where politicians are apprehensive of China's growing geopolitical influence. The US's naval bases in Singapore mean it retains strong strategic leverage in the region for the time being.