Is Thailand pivoting away from the US with Chinese arms deals?
- The ruling junta has drawn criticism for ramping up arms purchases from China. Is this just practical diplomacy, or something more?
Thailand’s military junta is pushing ahead with arms deals even as a long-promised election day looms, prompting critics to decry a lack of transparency in the procurement process.
If approved, it will be the third batch of these tanks supplied by the arms manufacturer following a 4.9 billion baht deal in 2016 for 28 VT-4s and another 11 that were delivered in 2017 for 2 billion baht.
That same year, the cabinet also approved the procurement of three S26T submarines from China worth 36 billion baht.
These deals have invited criticism within Thailand, which is often referred to as the Land of Smiles, for a lack of transparency, with some detractors even calling the deals illegitimate.
Following last week’s announcement, political activist Srisuwan Janya has called for an investigation into Bangkok’s arms deals.
“The NCPO [National Council for Peace and Order – the ruling junta’s name for itself] allowed the army to buy a large number of weapons from China, including a Chinese S-26T submarine and a VN1 armoured vehicle,” he said.
“Why do they focus on arms procurement only with China? [This] procurement cannot be openly examined as in the procurement of goods from the West.”
But with the US too, details of arms deals can often be missing or incomplete. In 2017, the Thai navy acknowledged its rumoured purchase of RGM-84L Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles from Boeing Defence, Space & Security – but only after Chan-ocha and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan had denied any such deal.
“The Thai junta, while welcoming trade, aid, investment, and purchasing military supplies from China, is seeking to practise a balanced foreign policy between China and Russia on one side and the US and Japan on the other,” he said.
“It is a policy of economic realism for Thailand, which itself can be considered a middle power of Asia.”
Dulyapak Preecharush, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at Thammasat University, pointed out that this was far from the first time that Thailand had sought arms from China.
“The Thai army, under military leaders, has purchased arms from China in the past. But the Thai-Chinese defence relations will not replace the Thai-US ones because [Bangkok’s] strategic culture focuses on a balance of power and strategic accommodation,” he said, while also predicting a rise in Chinese influence.
“Thailand’s increasing strategic dependency on China will make the Thai foreign and defence policy less flexible. China’s influence will see Thailand’s foreign policy more accommodating to its interests in the future.”
Whether the latest purchase agreement will be affected by the upcoming elections, set for March 24, remains to be seen.
Preecharush said the military “already has an advantage because the deals’ arrangement has been made in advance. The Thai army will maintain an important role during the election and the transition period as the new government arrives, so we can expect the arms procurement procedure to [remain] in place until that time.”
“Engaging in arms deals with China affects the government’s image, but not much. Some people may question the worthiness and performance of the weapons or purchasing objectives but China has shared with Thailand the development of [its] defence industry, which is good for domestic weapons manufacturing and security research,” he said.
“The army, during previous governments, has tightened relations with China, so the military’s relationship with China is not sufficient [to] negatively affect the government during the election.” ■