Chinese submarines are seen as more threatening elsewhere in Asean, where they reinforce Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea. Source: Wikimedia
Thailand’s military junta says it is buying three submarines worth around US$1 billion from China, pointing towards warming ties with Beijing as US relations cool.
The Thai military government has sought to improve ties with the Chinese which has stepped into the vacuum left by the west as it calls for a return to democratic government.
Analysts have remarked on a shift in Thai foreign policy amid condemnation of the May 2014 coup, followed by a suspension of high-level visits by European Union and US representatives.
The purchase of 36-billion baht Chinese-made Yuan class S26T submarines in 2017 was confirmed by Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.
Prawit said the submarines would be useful because Thailand had resources in the Andaman Sea to protect and because its neighbours were also acquiring similar vessels.
Thailand has no submarine fleet despite trying to sign deals since the 1990s with countries including South Korea and Germany.
The navy decommissioned its last submarines in 1951. A 540 million baht (US$15 million) submarine base and training centre was inaugurated in July 2014.
Thailand put the deal with China on hold last year to review the vessels’ costs and capabilities.
Jane’s Navy International said the S26T was a modified export version of China’s new Yuan-class submarine with the “T” standing for Thailand.
It reportedly uses a quiet diesel-electric propulsion system and could be used as an anti-surface vessel missile platform and operate in shallow coastal waters.
China and Thailand are also working towards a massive rail project and are holding joint air-force exercises.
No other Asean members have expressed willingness to participate in the proposed Chinese military exercises.
Thailand’s defence spending is set to rise to around 214 billion baht (US$6.1 billion) in 2017, up 16.6 per cent from 2014.
In December, the US ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies welcomed good relations between its oldest regional treaty ally and China, insisting that Washington had not “lost” Thailand.