Thailand’s cabinet approved Tuesday the purchase of 10 more Chinese tanks in a signal of the Southeast Asian state’s deepening cooperation with Beijing in the defense realm.
While sensationalist news accounts tend to exaggerate the downturn in U.S.-Thai relations and the uptick in Sino-Thai military cooperation following the May 2014 coup, we have admittedly witnessed Bangkok take some moves to strengthen its defense ties with Beijing over the past few years (See: “Trump and the US-Thailand Alliance”). This includes their first-ever joint air-force exercise, planned purchases of equipment such as submarines and tanks, and even discussions about a joint military production facility (See: “China, Thailand Mull Joint Production Facility”).
On tanks, Thailand has been looking to replace the aging M-41 tanks it bought from the United States decades ago and it had experienced some problems with the delivery of T-84 Oplot tanks previously ordered from Ukraine, leading it to search from some other cost-effective alternatives. As part of that effort, last year the Royal Thai Army (RTA) formally signed a pact to buy the MBT-3000 main battle tank (or V-4) produced by China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO), making Thailand its first known export customer.
Though that contract featured an initial 28 units valued at $150 million, the RTA was expected to procure additional tanks to meet its requirements for up to 150 MBTs, with some movement to be seen in 2017 as I have noted previously (See: “More China Battle Tanks for Thailand?”). Indeed, in late January, General Chatudom Thittasiri, the deputy permanent secretary at Thailand’s defense ministry, had told Reuters that Thailand has set aside two billion baht over three years to buy ten tanks and auxiliary vehicles from China.
Sure enough, on Tuesday, media outlets reported that the Thai cabinet had approved the purchase of 10 more Chinese VT-4 tanks worth around $58 million. Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan also confirmed that the plan was still for Thailand to order a full battalion of 49 tanks from China, and that after this batch of 10 tanks is delivered, the remaining 11 tanks would follow.
In their purchase of tanks from China, Prawit and other Thai officials have repeatedly emphasized factors like costs and urgency rather than any sort of realignment with Beijing at the expense of Bangkok’s traditional alliance with Washington. Nonetheless, the moves we have seen so far indicate that the growing defense ties between China and Thailand is something that is unlikely to ebb anytime soon.