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A toy tank in Bangkok’s Government House. Photo: Reuters

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.

Last week, the army announced it was seeking cabinet approval to buy 14 Chinese-made VT-4 battle tanks in a 2.3 billion baht (HK$568 million) deal between Bangkok and the China Ordnance Industries Group Corporation, also known as Norinco.
Thai army tanks are brought off a low loader. Photo: Reuters

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.

Thailand chases Chinese money, but at what cost?

The country, which is expected to hold a general election on March 24, is currently governed by a military junta that assumed power after a coup in 2014. Since then, Thailand’s defence budget has risen by more than 20 per cent from 183 billion baht to 227 billion baht – 5 million baht more than the previous year’s grant.

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.”

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha with US President Donald Trump at the White House in October 2017. Photo: Reuters
Relations between Thailand and the United States, its long-time ally, chilled following the military coup in 2014. There have been signs of warming ties in recent years, however, with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s visit to the White House in October 2017 followed by the Thai army’s announcement in April that it would add four US-made Black Hawk helicopters, worth 750 million baht each, to its existing fleet of 12.

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.

Paul Chambers, a professor of international affairs at Naresuan University in northern Thailand, described Chinese military hardware as “cheaper and of lower quality than military hardware from the US and other Western countries”. But “the junta’s purchase of tanks, submarines and other military hardware should come as no surprise since [it] tilted towards China following the Obama administration’s downgrading of ties”.

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“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.”

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: AFP

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.”