- - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

BANGKOK — In a deal that has raised eyebrows around the region, Thailand’s coup-installed regime is on the verge of purchasing three attack submarines from China for $1 billion, after the country’s navy received exclusive anti-submarine warfare training from the U.S. 7th Fleet.

Criticism of the deal has been strong in Bangkok’s media, with some skeptics saying it would waste money because Thailand has no enemies and the military previously bought an unimpressive aircraft carrier and blimp, plus fake bomb detectors. Royal Thai navy officials selected China over competing bids from Russia, Sweden, France, Germany and South Korea.

Bangkok has long been a key U.S. ally in the region, but it has been stepping up economic and transportation ties with Beijing under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha*, the former army officer who heads the military junta that seized power in 2014. Talking to reporters in Bangkok Tuesday, Mr. Prayuth denied the submarine deal was another bid to curry favor with China, the region’s rising power.

“There is no need for that,” he said. “We have a good relationship with China already. Every country is good to us, except those who are still stuck on the word ‘democracy.’”

He said the government, as it makes its final recommendation, would consider if it were necessary to buy the submarines.

“If we can afford it, we would have to think about the necessity,” he said. “Is it for battles or for protecting our maritime interests? How can we protect fishing navigation? You see that other seas have these issues. You think we will not have this problem there.”

“If a war breaks out, nearly all of our surface ships will be wiped out. Submarines are what will survive,” Thailand’s Navy Commander Adm. Kraisorn Chansuvanich said this week. “The Gulf of Thailand isn’t so shallow that we can’t use submarines.”

After last year’s coup that ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the U.S. State Department has repeatedly criticized Mr. Prayuth’s regime’s harsh human rights abuses, called for a return to democracy and canceled some U.S. aid. The Pentagon however continued strengthening Mr. Prayuth’s military, and the massive annual Cobra Gold U.S.-Thai military exercise was held this year after being sharply scaled back in 2014 in the aftermath of the coup.

Unlike the Obama administration, China has not criticized Mr. Prayuth’s coup or his crackdown on free speech and political activity. Instead, China hosted the junta’s top officials during trips to Beijing and offered sweetened military and commercial deals.

“Thailand’s relations with China have long been strong, and it seems that Beijing incrementally steps up its ties with the Thai military every time Washington pulls back,” Ernest Bower and Murray Hiebert, Southeast Asia specialists at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote last month.

Chinese visitors

In April, China’s Central Military Commission Vice-Chairman Xu Qilang visited Thailand, six months after his first trip.

In February, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan came to Bangkok.

China’s bid for expanded trade and expanded security links with Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations has also unnerved Japan, which over the weekend announced its own $6.1 billion infrastructure and investment package over the next three years for the so-called “Mekong 5” — Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The Chinese sub deal has also sparked some unusually open criticism in the Thai press, with many saying the submarines are not needed for the country’s defense and that the deal was only approved in part because of the heavy military influence in the junta’s Cabinet.

Mr. Prayuth “likely lacks the political confidence to say no to the Navy’s request for subs,” the Nation newspaper wrote in an editorial this week. “Can he and his Cabinet be brought to their senses? With protest barred in this benighted kingdom, a public uprising is out of the question.”

“Sink these submarines,” the headline of a Bangkok Post editorial said on July 1, warning: “The navy’s actions on subs remain opaque, unexplained and quite possibly wrong.”

The three Chinese attack subs, costing $355 million each, are reportedly the quiet non-nuclear Yuan 041 which boasts an advanced “air-independent propulsion” system allowing the vessels to stay submerged for an extended time.

“Neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have had submarines in their arsenals for many years,” Adm. Kraisorn said in April as opposition mounted to the deal. New submarines would be a “strategy to improve our armed forces.”

He noted that, even with the purchase, it could be up to six years before the submarines are actually manned and deployed. “If we do not start now, we have to wait for a long time.”

Thailand has the infrastructure for a “submarine division” on the Gulf of Thailand, but does not possess any submarines.

Its naval headquarters is at Sattahip Navy Base, southeast of Bangkok along the gulf. The shallow gulf washes the coasts of Cambodia and Vietnam, and opens to the fiercely contested South China Sea where Beijing has repeatedly clashed with its neighbors and with the U.S. over sovereignty claims.

Chevron — Thailand’s largest foreign investor — and other energy extractors have rigs and platforms across the gulf.

Those platforms are cited as targets to protect during military and anti-terrorism exercises, including the annual multinational Cobra Gold exercises.

Thailand’s last submarine was decommissioned in 1951 after navy officers attempted an abortive coup which failed after the army and air force bombed their Bangkok positions, resulting in 68 dead, including dozens of civilians.

“Following the failed coup d’etat of 1951, the government moved to dismantle the navy’s influence in the armed force, stripping it of submarines, a marine force, and war planes,” Khaosod news reported.

“The navy’s marine force was restored in 1955 on the advice of the United States military, who trained the corps,” Khaosod said.

Mr. Prayuth visited Beijing in December and met Chinese President Xi Jinping less than a week after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Thailand.

Beijing now plans to buy two million tons of Thai rice and construct a high-speed, north-south railroad across Thailand to Bangkok.


* Due to an editing error, Mr. Prayuth’s title was misstated in the original article. It has been corrected online.

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