Thailand’s military government hurriedly approved the budget to purchase three submarines from China, defending its decision as “strategically necessary” in the age of uncertain security situation in the region. However, the junta’s decision has been heavily criticised by the Thai public on the real need for the costly submarines at the time of the country’s economic downturn.
Putting aside the government’s mismanagement of priorities, the public’s disapproval of the submarines purchase also stemmed from two key concerns. First, the nature of the submarines deal with China invites questions regarding its transparency. Second, the purchase of the latest Chinese armaments will be likely to pull Thailand further into the orbit of China.
The submarines deal between Thailand and China
The Thai government admitted that the budget approval was made in a closed-door meeting and that the public needed not to know the details of the deal, claiming that it was a matter of national security. But the secret meeting seemed to suggest that the deal with China might not be straightforward. Shortly before the decision was made, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan happened to take his holidays abroad but declined to reveal his destination. The media speculated that he could have visited Beijing to discuss the submarines purchase.
The purchase of the first submarine will cost $390 million. The payment will be made in instalments over seven years. The government reaffirmed that the spending on three submarines from China will not affect other parts of the national budget. Yet, the Thai public complained that the purchase of submarines was unnecessary and that the construction of the high-speed trains would be more beneficial to stimulate the stagnated Thai economy.
Already, the defense budget has augmented drastically over the past few years. The 2017 defense budget is about $6.11 billion, approximately 9 percent more than 2014, the year the military staged a coup. It appears that the military has striven to enrich itself as much as to increase its own capability, although in practice, Thailand’s has formulated an amicable policy toward neighbouring countries, as part of the junta seeking legitimacy and recognition from them.
Due to the ambiguous nature of the budget allocation, it raised a prospect of corruption. Thai journalists have been warned not to report on the hasty purchase, being threatened to face charges should they write to indicate any corruption practice by the military. The purchase of submarines is added into a long list of controversial policies of the junta, which have been tainted by corruption scandals.
For example, the recent construction of a royal park, Rajapakdi, caught a media attention because the procurement process was found to be irregular. Bizarrely, Thai activists who demanded the government’s answer for the irregularities were arrested. In another instance, General Prawit was accused of excessively spending the state’s fund for an official trip to Hawaii. The reputation of the military as an unaccountable institution has been well entrenched. The saga of the submarines purchase has cemented this reputation.
Meanwhile, the Thai public has worried about the cosying up between the Thai junta and the Chinese leadership. The submarines from China have heightened the level of intimacy between the military leaders of the two nations. China is the first country to recognize the coup of Thailand in 2014. The legitimacy provided by China allowed the Thai junta to feel more confident amidst sanctions from the Western governments.
Thai-Chinese military ties have been strengthened in the face of Bangkok’s growing uneasy relations with Washington. Thailand and China have from now participated in an annual joint military exercise, a similar operation to that of the Cobra Gold, which serves as a bedrock of Thai-US military relations. Over the years, the Thai government has purchased military hardware equipment from China. Chinese military armaments could sometime be of poor quality and unreliable. What is more important however is the fact that the arms sales have helped firm up bilateral military ties. It also allows Thailand to use China to counterbalance the US’s influence in the country.
Although the US has remained the most important military partner of Thailand, the arrival of the Trump administration, with its uncertain foreign policy toward Southeast Asia, has compelled the Thai junta to diversify its options to cope with the unpredictability of the new government in Washington. Befriending China is clearly a part of the Thai strategy.
Thailand and China has never engaged in military confrontations in their modern-day contact. The two countries do not share boundary, land or maritime, thus avoiding acrimonious conflicts as seen between China and other ASEAN states. On this basis, China hopes to exploit its ties with Thailand to make inroads into Southeast Asia to maintain its sphere of influence in the region.
From this perspective, the submarines purchase from China has the potential to intensify the competition and rivalry between the two powers—China and the US. Moreover, it may not contribute well to the ongoing conflict in the South China Sea. Although Thailand is not a claimant over the disputed islands, the acquisition of submarines from China may shift the regional balance of power and create suspicion among parties involved in the conflict.
In the Thai context, the last armed conflict in which Thailand engaged was its war with Cambodia over the disputed areas surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple. Today, the two countries also claim maritime territories in the Gulf of Thailand. The purchase of submarines from China will complicate the diplomatic effort on both Thailand and Cambodia in finding a peaceful solution to their claims over disputed territories.
In a regional context, this will also challenge the work of ASEAN in its preventive diplomacy initiative as the Thai move could encourage Cambodia to equip itself with modern weaponry too. Therefore, the intimate military ties between Bangkok and Beijing could have a dangerous repercussion on the region as a whole.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies