BANGKOK • Thailand's government yesterday agreed to buy 10 tanks from China for US$58 million (S$81 million), while Cambodia told a United States Navy unit its services were no long needed, in another sign of the South-east Asian countries loosening links with Washington as they strengthened ties with Beijing.
The Thai military is replacing its US-made M41 rolling stock with Chinese VT-4 tanks, as it continues to upgrade its equipment three years after seizing power from a civilian government.
The South-east Asian country has already snapped up 28 Chinese tanks and secured around US$380 million for a submarine - with cash being sought for two more.
Yesterday, the Cabinet approved the purchase of 10 more VT-4s for around 2 billion baht (S$81 million), Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters. "These are to replace the M41 tanks which we have used since World War II," he said.
Thailand is facing a decade-long insurgency in its southern-most provinces, but rarely deploys tanks there. Its last international conflict came during border skirmishes with Cambodia in 2011.
The kingdom's well-oiled military has ousted two elected governments in the last decade. In parallel, the defence budget has nearly tripled to around US$6 billion.
Thailand's generosity to its armed forces has raised eyebrows, given the stuttering post-coup economy. Critics say the military - with one of the highest proportions of generals in the world - has a penchant for non-essential big-ticket purchases, including an aircraft carrier which currently has no aircraft.
China has soaked up Thai defence spending. That has raised questions over the kingdom's relationship with its oldest ally - the US - whose own policies towards Thailand and the rest of South-east Asia have been cast into uncertainty by the rise of protectionist President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, the departure of the US Navy mobile construction battalion (Seabees) meant the cancellation of 20 planned projects, including at schools and hospitals, the US Embassy said on Monday.
"Last week, the Royal Government of Cambodia notified the embassy of its decision to postpone indefinitely the Seabees programme," the embassy said.
Cambodian Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said he was unaware of such a decision.
Cambodia has gone further than other South-east Asian nations in courting China, and the shift away from Washington has continued under President Trump despite Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's professed admiration for him.
Relations have been strained by US criticism of a legal change that made it easier for the government to ban political parties and renewed Cambodian demands for the cancellation of US$500 million in debts dating back to the 1970s.
In January, Cambodia suspended joint military exercises that were due to have been held in June. Cambodia said it was because it would be too busy with elections then, and rejected any connections with China.
Last year, Beijing held a joint naval drill with Cambodia for the first time. Cambodia's army has benefited from Chinese training and equipment, including jeeps, rocket launchers and helicopters.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS