Asia Defense

How Did China Just Win Thailand’s New Submarine Bid?

The country has chosen Beijing to help realize its long-deferred submarine quest.

Thailand’s navy has elected to buy three submarines from China, moving the country one step closer to acquiring a capability it has lacked for more than six decades, media sources reported June 26 (See: “Thailand Eyes Submarine Fleet”).

According to The Bangkok Post, a source on the 17-member submarine procurement committee appointed by the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) revealed that a majority of its members had voted to buy three Chinese submarines costing 12 billion baht ($355 million) each because they were the “best value for money.” The rest of the committee members were apparently split between submarines from South Korea and Germany. As I have written previously, Thailand has lacked a submarine capability since 1951 and has tried but failed since the 1990s to ink submarine deals with several suppliers, including Seoul and Berlin (See: “Will Thailand Realize its Submarine Quest?”).

The official line from military sources is that the decision to go with Chinese-made submarines was based largely on value. In a separate report, The Bangkok Post cited various sources from the navy and the procurement committee as saying that China was chosen because its submarines were not only the cheapest, but of good quality as well contrary to concerns on this score. But a committee member also disclosed that Beijing had offered military technology transfer and training as part of the package, which other countries would otherwise charge more for. That member likened buying submarines to a car purchase. “If we are able to buy a Mercedes but have no money left for petrol, we should look at a top model Toyota instead, which would still leave some money for petrol,” the source said.

Nonetheless, if confirmed the decision is likely to be read by some as another sign that Thailand is leaning closer towards China amid a rocky relationship with its ally the United States following a coup last May. As I have pointed out previously, the reality is in fact much more complex. It is certainly true that Bangkok and Beijing have been looking to boost their defense ties, with an uptick of high-level visits and commitments to expand joint military exercises and training and enhancing defense industry cooperation (See: “China, Thailand Eye Deeper Defense Ties”). But as I have written before, Sino-Thai defense relations have been slow to develop in these areas, while U.S.-Thai defense ties are significantly more mature such that comparing the two makes little sense (See: “Did China Just Boost Military Ties With Thailand?”).

If this new submarine deal is finalized, it could open the possibility for other areas of defense collaboration between Thailand and China such as the ones being deliberated by both sides. But Thailand’s past experience with submarines suggests that renewed efforts in this direction ought to be viewed with caution. Internal differences, political stability and cost issues could complicate and derail plans as they have previously. And as Thai navy chief Admiral Kraisorn Chansuvanich said earlier this year, even if the government were to approve the submarine purchase today, time will be needed to build the ships and send personnel for training for one or more years, which means that it will take five or six years before they can enter the service. There may also be lingering questions about the quality of the submarines.

That being said, if the deal goes through, this would constitute a boost to the Sino-Thai relationship as the two countries celebrate their 40th anniversary this year. And it would move Bangkok one step closer to realizing its long-deferred dream of acquiring submarines, which would finally be able fill its multi-million dollar submarine training center after some time.