Last year, the Thai government forced the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) to postpone the purchase of two Yuan-class S26T submarines from China amid fierce public backlash, parliamentary opposition, and the fiscal constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, history has repeated itself as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has ordered the RTN to halt the purchase once again.
Those in the RTN worry that years of postponement will harm Thailand’s credibility and possibly spark China’s anger, but Prayut had every reason to issue the postponement order. The new COVID-19 surge, beginning in April of this year, has spiraled out of control, with daily infections above the 10,000 mark. On July 22, the country marked a daily record of 13,655 cases. Bangkok and other designated red zones have now gone into lockdown, and authorities have noted that a full lockdown – the so-called “Wuhan model,” which would prevent people from leaving their homes – may kick in. The European Union has already removed Thailand from its safe travel list, dealing a a big blow to the “Phuket Sandbox” scheme that seeks to reboot the country’s tourism industry.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s vaccine rollout has been slow and plagued by shortages. The nationally distributed vaccines – namely China’s Sinovac and locally produced AstraZeneca shots – are said to be ineffective against the new Delta variant, resulting in the growing demand for COVID-19 vaccines that use the mRNA technology. The military-backed government’s failure to handle the COVID-19 crisis and the lack of compensation for lockdown losses have fueled public outrage against the submarine purchase.
The two submarines in question cost 22.5 billion baht, or more than $683 million. This amount, according to a Thai news outlet, could be used to purchase 123 million AstraZeneca shots, 150 million units of PPE gear, and rapid antigen test kits for some 64 million people.
These submarines are part of the RTN’s submarine acquisition plan, first unveiled six years ago, to buy a total of three diesel-powered Chinese submarines at the cost of 36 billion baht. A budget of 13.5 billion baht to purchase the first submarine was allocated to the RTN in 2017.
The submarine deal has been the subject of widespread criticism, even before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics argue that Thailand has no serious maritime threat since it is not a claimant state in the South China Sea. Thailand has overlapping claims with Cambodia, as well as Malaysia and Vietnam, in the Gulf of Thailand, but these disputes have been carefully managed through negotiations and joint developments.
Besides, the shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand are not amenable to submarine activities. Another concern is that the Thai military has a history of wasteful spending. Back in 2009, the military purchased the Aeros 40D S/N 21 Sky Dragon airship at the cost of 350 million baht even though the actual cost was estimated around 30-50 million baht. The costly airship experienced many technical difficulties and was decommissioned after only eight years in service.
The RTN, backed by the Prayut government, insists that Thailand needs to catch up with naval modernization efforts in the region to enhance its bargaining power and protect its maritime interests. Thailand’s last and the only set of submarines ever employed by the RTN – four Matchanu-class submarines built in Japan – were decommissioned in 1951. Fast forward to the present day, Thailand lacks credible sea deterrent capabilities while many of its maritime neighbors, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, are well-armed with submarine fleets. Myanmar’s acquisition of a Russian-made Kilo-class submarine from India in 2020 and the Philippines’ quest to obtain submarine capabilities from South Korea have further increased the RTN’s anxiety.
Earlier this year, the RTN launched a “Thai Submarine” Facebook page that shares general information, history, documentaries, and other sources related to submarines in an attempt to educate the public about the need for the purchase.
But the path ahead for Thailand’s submarine acquisition plans is strewn with obstacles. Even if the Prayut government, or any new government formed in approaching elections, managed to win the COVID-19 battle, there are many lingering structural problems that need to be addressed. Thailand’s slow and inefficient bureaucratic system, together with the country’s reduced competitive edge, have all been exposed by COVID-19. In the public eyes, these issues, which are central to Thailand’s future development, are certainly more urgent than the navy’s submarine acquisition plans.