MELBOURNE, Australia — Thailand has taken another step in a burgeoning arms trade with China, with the Thai government approving the purchase of more Chinese-built tanks.
According to Thai government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the cabinet has approved the acquisition of 10 more VT4 main battle tanks designed and built by China's Norinco.
This batch of tanks, reportedly costing $58 million, will be the second batch of VT4s ordered by Thailand after an earlier batch of 28 tanks was ordered in 2016. The VT4s will replace the elderly M41 Walker Bulldogs currently operated by the Royal Thai Army.
The Southeast Asian kingdom has an outstanding requirement of 200 tanks and had originally turned to Ukraine for its T-84 Oplot tanks, with 49 acquired in 2011. However, delays meant that only a small handful had been delivered by 2014, and the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine means it will be unable to fulfill the Thai order, leading to Thailand tapping China for its VT4s.
The VT4 is a 52-ton main battle tank developed by China specifically for overseas export. It incorporates technology from the Type 99A currently fielded by the Chinese People's Liberation Army. It is armed with a 125mm smoothbore cannon also capable of firing guided missiles, has a remote weapon station on the turret armed with a heavy machine gun and can be fitted with an active protection system. The fire control system has hunter-killer capabilities, laser rangefinder, panoramic sight and a third-generation thermal imaging system.
This most recent order is the latest in a series of defense articles Thailand has acquired from China, and it serves as an example of strengthening ties between the two countries, with some recent examples being a trio of Type 039 Yuan-class diesel-electric attack submarines in late 2016 and VN1 eight-wheel drive infantry fighting vehicles announced in March.
The Royal Thai Armed Forces already operate several types of equipment of Chinese origin, including frigates and offshore patrol vessels of the Royal Thai Navy.
While the comparatively low prices have undoubtedly been a major factor in Thailand's increasing predilection for Chinese arms, Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Asia division, told Defense News that Thailand increasingly turning to China as its arms supplier "does of course have geopolitical undertones."
He noted that "the Western response to the armed forces' political role since 2014 has evidently undermined relations with Bangkok, including the latter's previous predisposition to buy arms from U.S. or Western sources and provided an opportunity for China to intensify its all-round relations with Thailand."
Thailand is a key security ally of the United States in Asia. In December 2003, Thailand was designated a major non-NATO ally. However, ties were strained since the 2014 coup that saw the current military junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha come to power, with the United States freezing $4.7 million of security-related aid and canceling some security agreements in response, although military ties have since been mostly restored.
In contrast, China was the first major power to acknowledge Thailand's ruling junta following the coup, and has since then become Thailand's leading trading partner and second-largest source of foreign investment that has included substantial investment in infrastructure projects.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.