Thailand’s procurement of three diesel-powered Yuan-class submarines from China has been subjected to constant delays and harsh criticism. The purchase of the first submarine was approved in 2017, but the fate of the other two submarines is up in the air. One key argument against Thailand’s submarine program is that the country is situated in a low-threat environment. The surprise formation of the AUKUS alliance, however, has dramatically heightened the risks of an arms race and nuclear proliferation, thereby providing the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) with a new justification to quickly get its hands on the long-overdue subs.
The AUKUS partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which will see Australia equipped with a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is widely seen as a move to deter China’s rapid maritime expansion. On the one hand, AUKUS is a demonstration of Washington’s unwavering security commitment and increased willingness to share defense technology with allies. On the other hand, however, AUKUS could be very destabilizing. As argued by Barbara Yoxon from the University of Lancaster, the lack of meaningful diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and China has fueled miscalculations, misinterpretations, and the security dilemma. Thus, instead of containing China, AUKUS is likely to spur China into strengthening its military capabilities further.
The intensifying military competition between the two great powers would certainly accelerate the already fierce arms buildup in the region. The Philippines’ Department of National Defense, in its initial response to AUKUS, acknowledged Australia’s “right” to improve its defense posture and alluded that Manila is embarking on a similar path of military upgrades. Manila has been actively looking for submarine capabilities and its naval modernization has remained largely uninterrupted despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Vietnam, meanwhile, has not issued a strong response for or against AUKUS. But, over the course of this year, the Vietnamese government has broadened defense cooperation with the U.S. and Japan with the aim of limiting Beijing’s military footprint in contested waters.
Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced strong opposition against the AUKUS, both citing the dangers of conventional and nuclear arms races. From their perspectives, Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines essentially paves the way for its development of nuclear weapons. This is a sensitive issue for ASEAN states that seek to preserve Southeast Asia as a nuclear-free zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality. Indonesia, given its shared maritime border with Australia and its role as a traditional leader of ASEAN, is particularly nervous and is expected to significantly boost its conventional deterrent capabilities to safeguard its immediate strategic interests.
Thailand has stayed silent on the AUKUS development. This is not surprising, considering that Thailand’s foreign policy approach is well known for its prudence and pragmatism. Thailand’s goal – as a non-claimant state in disputed seas – is to maintain a balanced position and avoid being dragged into great power conflict. But those in the military certainly recognize the urgent need to catch up with the region’s naval modernization efforts. The RTN has long argued that Thailand seriously lacks maritime deterrent capabilities. When the budget approval for the remaining submarines resurfaces next year, the RTN will surely cite the growing strategic uncertainty resulting from AUKUS to legitimize its pursuit of submarines.
Still, there remain two obstacles beyond the economic viability and the lack of trust in the military-backed government. First, many Thais believe that diplomacy is the best balancing tool for small states. Thailand managed to survive colonialism and forceful foreign occupation by relying solely on its sharp-witted diplomacy, not military power. In this context, having one or or two or three submarines does not make a difference. It might be wiser to pump money into education and training, look for new talents at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and push Thai diplomats to take leading positions in regional and international organizations.
Second, Thais are generally more worried about domestic issues such as political instability, economic recession, and the widening socioeconomic disparities that can only be resolved through serious reforms. The 2021 State of Southeast Asia survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute reveals that only 16.8 percent of Thai respondents see increased military tensions in potential flashpoints as one of the major challenges facing Southeast Asia. This is significantly smaller than figures from Vietnam (59.4 percent), Philippines (37.3 percent), Singapore (33.5 percent), Brunei (33.3 percent), Cambodia (30.8 percent), and Indonesia (26.4 percent). If the Thai government cannot alleviate domestic troubles, then the RTN’s chance of securing submarine funding next year will be greatly diminished.
Thai leaders will face a tough task of maintaining political survival, addressing mounting economic and social challenges, and keeping up with many critical developments in international relations. Ultimately, while the AUKUS shift gives Thailand a sound justification for its submarine acquisition quest, the road ahead will be far from smooth.