Thai-China submarine deal backlash shows pressure on Prayuth to defend arms buying spree
- Since Prayuth Chan-ocha took power in 2014, Thailand has increasingly been arming itself with weapons from China
- As Thailand’s order of two Chinese submarines stalls, one analyst says US-China tensions could be behind the deal’s delay
Opposition lawmaker Yuttapong Charasathien said his Pheu Thai party – backed by ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra – had questioned whether representatives from the Thai Navy and submarine builder China Shipbuilding & Offshore International, who signed the agreement in 2017, had the authority to do so.
There should be a “full powers” document from both the Thai and Chinese head of governments to make it a valid pact, he said.
“General Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister, said he would provide all documents to prove that the deal is valid,” said Yuttapong, who was among 24 opposition lawmakers in a parliamentary subcommittee that included 72 others from the government coalition scrutinising the navy’s budget for the 2021-2022 financial year.
The subcommittee had after a vote approved the acquisition of two Yuan Class S26T submarines worth 22.5 billion baht (US$726 million). The purchase of one submarine had gone through in 2017 and is expected to be delivered in 2023.
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It has also made major arms acquisitions from China and has expressed interest in more joint exercises and joint training.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping speculated there could be an “American factor” to delay the acquisitions, that came about after public backlash with “People don’t want submarines” trending on Twitter.
“The US and Thailand are treaty allies. As the China-US confrontation continues, anything could happen. Moreover, the US is also a major weapons supplier to Thailand. The American factor could have played an important role here too,” Song said.
Critics said the Thai government has yet to provide a clear reason as to why it pressed ahead with the Chinese submarines in the first place or whether it had a chance to consider quotations from other countries.
Chambers said: “These submarines are becoming another flashpoint in Thai civil society’s opposition to the military and Prayuth government because of the Navy’s insistence on buying expensive military largesse during a pandemic, the opaque manner in which (they) were purchased and the fact that the contract to purchase (them) may have been invalid.”
Song, the Hong Kong-based commentator, said the deferment of the submarines purchased would be “understandable to China”.
“Given their longtime relationship, I believe the two sides would be able to negotiate a solution,” he said. “On the other hand, arms sales are not merely commercial deals but they are guaranteed by both countries’ reputation. The Thai government will also have to handle it reasonably.”
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Sek Sophal, a security researcher at Japan’s Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, said Beijing was also looking at Thailand’s domestic political situation with concern.
“What I think China is worried about is that any possible change of the Thai domestic politics would likely lead to the change of the submarine procurement project.
“If the current government cannot stay in power, the new government may or may not support the existing submarine project. It is possible that the new government might renegotiate to set new terms of conditions or permanently cancel the submarine procurement project,” he said. “Clearly, none of these two options is good for China.”
This week, Prayuth, also the defence minister, appeared to hint that China had not yet been formally informed of the suspension of the deal.
He said on Monday that talks would be conducted between both sides, without elaborating, though Bangkok Post quoted a source who said China had agreed to the delay for a year.
Government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri, in announcing the delay on Monday, insisted the plan to purchase the submarines would eventually go ahead.
The security threats posed by those issues “should not require responses from submarines”, he said.
For Chambers, Thailand’s security issues would remain largely domestic, especially until at least 2023 when the first submarine will be handed over.
Additional reporting by Liu Zhen