Thai junta's submarine deal ignites controversy

Need for three Chinese-made vessels, as well as transparency of purchase, under question

The Thai junta's move to acquire three Chinese-made submarines has run into controversy, with questions raised over the deal's transparency and whether there is even any need for such vessels in a nation not seen as a traditional maritime power.

Thailand signed the 13.5 billion baht (S$547 million) contract last week for the first of three Yuan- class S26T submarines to be delivered over 11 years. All in, the three vessels will cost 36 billion baht.

The signing ceremony went ahead in Beijing before Thailand's Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) could complete its scrutiny of classified navy documents.

Anti-graft activists led by Mr Srisuwan Janya, secretary-general of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution, had petitioned the OAG on April 27 to look into possible violations in the procurement process and conflicts of interest. But with the deal already signed, critics say, the investigation and its findings may come too late.

Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said the submarines were needed to protect natural resources in the Andaman Sea, noting that neighbouring countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam had submarines.

But Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, said the issue is not of necessity but suitability. "A submarine capability must fit within a broader geo-strategic outlook and geographic realities," he told The Straits Times. "Thailand is traditionally a land power, not known for being a maritime player in the region."

While some of its neighbours are embroiled in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Thailand is not party to any such claims and has not been invaded by sea since 1941.

Dr Thitinan said the navy was merely intent on procuring submarines without considering "other associated costs in future years".

The navy has not owned a submarine since the last one was decommissioned in 1951. This recent purchase was requested in 2015, less than a year after the junta came to power. It was approved on April 18 this year but details were not revealed until a week later.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha has said it was not appropriate for the navy to reveal security information. "This kind of issue concerns national security and every country keeps such matters secret," he said.

The government has insisted that it followed proper procedures, inviting major firms from Germany, France, Sweden, South Korea, Russia and China to submit proposals.

"The reason we chose Chinese- built submarines is that they are the cheapest when compared with other countries' offers," Mr Prawit said. While other manufacturers proposed two submarines for Thailand's budget, China offered three.

Under the deal, China will provide free CM-708 missiles that can be fired at targets on the surface of water or on land over a range of 290km. The submarines, which carry two-year warranties, will also come with other weapons, including torpedoes.

Mr Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the Bangkok-based think-tank Siam Intelligence Unit, said this is not the first time the military has bought hardware from China. Over the past three decades, the navy has procured two frigates, two patrol vessels and a replenishment ship.

But Dr Thitinan expressed concern that the submarine deal may cause political imbalance, with Thailand being seen as tilting towards China amid regional tensions.

The Thai military has made controversial purchases before. In the 1990s, it bought HTMS Chakri Naruebet - the first aircraft carrier in South-east Asia - from Spain for US$336 million. But since the 1997 financial crisis, the government has not had sufficient funds to operate it, nor build the aircraft it was meant to carry.

Last week, the military's top brass held its press conference for the submarine purchase on the docked carrier. Critics fear the submarines will suffer the same fate in the future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2017, with the headline 'Thai junta's submarine deal ignites controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe