Thailand puts S$1.4 billion Chinese submarines purchase on hold

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand has put on hold the purchase of submarines from China, the Thai defence minister said on Wednesday, raising questions about its commitment to acquiring its first such vessels.

Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said this month the navy had approved a 36 billion baht (S$1.44 billion) plan to buy three submarines from China.

Thailand, a staunch United States ally for decades, has stepped up engagement with China as China increases its influence in the region with loans and aid for infrastructure, and as a 2014 coup in Thailand strained Thai-US relations.

Prawit, known to be a strong backer of the plan to get submarines, told reporters the acquisition was on hold while the navy re-considered the role of the vessels and their cost.

"We will wait for now and not introduce it to the cabinet for approval," Prawit told reporters. "For now, the navy must inform itself and educate itself on whether the submarines are worth it and how much they will add to the Thai navy."

Thailand has been considering getting submarines since the 1990s with both Germany and South Korea seen as possible suppliers, though deals have never been concluded.

In November, Thailand's navy chief said he had revived plans to procure submarines.

Officials say Thailand's quest for submarines makes sense strategically and could help ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Thailand if territorial disputes in the energy-rich South China Sea blow up.

Vietnam has taken possession of three Russian-built Kilo-attack submarines and has three more on order. Indonesia has ordered three from South Korea's Daewoo Shipbuilding.

China this year surpassed Germany, France and Britain to become the world's third-largest arms exporter, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute think-tank.

China was the first major power to acknowledge Thailand's ruling junta following a May 2014 military coup.