MELBOURNE, Australia — Thailand’s intention to buy two more submarines from China has run into vociferous resistance, with the country’s main opposition party questioning the need to go ahead with the acquisition against the backdrop of the economic slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics have also questioned the utility of the submarines, which resulted in the Royal Thai Navy holding a media conference Monday to defend the purchase.
Thailand decided in 2015 to acquire three S26T diesel-electric submarines, an export version of the Type 039A, or Yuan class. The $390 million contract for the first boat was signed in 2017 by the military government in power at that time, with delivery expected in 2024.
A nine-member parliamentary subcommittee scrutinizing the government’s major projects had narrowly approved the $717 million two-sub acquisition, with the chairman casting the deciding vote to break the deadlock.
Defending the purchase at Monday’s media conference in the Thai capital Bangkok, Royal Thai Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Sittiporn Maskasem said the service needs more submarines as part of its defense strategy. An accompanying presentation noted the number of submarines already in service or being introduced by regional navies as justification for the purchase.
However, Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said “there had been little offered to convince the domestic constituents why submarines are so critical for the country’s maritime defense and security interests,” adding on Twitter that “keeping up with the Joneses” has been a recurring theme in justifying the purchase. The phrase is used to describe a situation where one wants the same items as others out of concern the individual will fall behind in importance.
While acknowledging submarines will help with deterrence and naval warfare, Koh said pointed to some of the questionable reasons previously given by the Royal Thai Navy for the vessels, including their use for countering piracy and illegal fishing, as well as assisting in humanitarian missions and disaster relief.
He also tweeted that exaggerating the submarines’ usefulness can provoke more skepticism among the Thai public for the purchase, particularly given the economic problems that had previously prompted the government to decide in May to halt allocating funds for the subs.
Thailand’s economy, which is highly dependent on international tourism, has been severely battered by border closures and travel restrictions caused by the spread of COVID-19. The most optimistic projection for the number of visitors to Thailand this year is 8 million, a far cry from the 19 million tourists who visited in 2019.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.