Bangkok, October 24, 2023 – In a recent twist of events, Thailand’s military committee chairman, Mr. Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, has summoned the navy to provide an explanation for a strategic change in the nation’s defense procurement plan. This shift pertains to the decision to replace an already-purchased Chinese-built submarine with a frigate, a move that has raised eyebrows across diplomatic circles.
The 13.5 billion baht (U.S. $369 million) Yuan-class submarine purchase, originally designed to bolster Thailand’s naval capabilities, encountered a significant roadblock. The Chinese state-owned submarine developer found itself unable to acquire a German-built diesel engine for the submarine due to an arms embargo imposed by the European Union on Beijing.
The Defense Minister of Thailand, Sutin Klungsang, declared last week that the Royal Thai Navy would temporarily shelve its plans to acquire the submarine, citing prolonged difficulties in finding a suitable engine. To address this issue, the government proposed an alternative: acquiring a Navy frigate from China. The frigate, according to Minister Sutin, offers robust defensive capabilities in the air, on the surface, and underwater, making it an attractive substitute.
Despite the shift, Thailand remains diplomatically cautious, avoiding potential tensions with China by not abandoning the submarine purchase entirely. This strategic move aims to maintain diplomatic harmony while allowing Thailand the time to explore alternative submarine procurement options. Paul Chambers, a lecturer and special advisor on international affairs at Naresuan University’s Center of ASEAN Community Studies, highlights the value of this frigate purchase, stating, “The submarine negotiations with China are seemingly endless. While Germany refuses to provide its engines for the submarines, China itself is encountering problems locating a particular engine of its own under the agreement with Thailand. The frigate purchase is a diplomatic substitute.”
The Royal Thai Navy’s decision to acquire submarines has faced scrutiny both in terms of cost and strategic necessity. With public sentiment in mind, Minister Sutin emphasized the importance of considering the legality and potential political ramifications of accepting the Chinese engine for the submarine. It has also led to discussions about purchasing submarines from other countries.
However, as Thailand navigates this strategic transition, questions about the diplomatic balancing act emerge. The Thai government aims to strengthen its economic ties with China, a significant global player. Visa-free travel initiatives and investment efforts have been underway to enhance the economic partnership. The move away from the submarine deal might require delicate diplomacy.
Thailand’s neighbors have also been building their naval capabilities, reflecting regional trends. Vietnam purchased Kilo-class submarines from Russia, while Indonesia and the Philippines explore options to procure submarines from France. Singapore and Malaysia already operate submarines, but China maintains the largest submarine fleet in Asia, with the Pentagon projecting further expansion.
The Yuan-class submarine, designed for operations in shallow coastal waters, has been at the center of Thailand’s recent defense procurement debates. While the situation continues to evolve, it underscores the complex web of diplomacy, security, and economics that characterizes the region’s geopolitical landscape.
In a press conference on October 20, Minister Sutin affirmed that the proposed frigate could serve Thailand’s practical needs while also replacing the HTMS Sukhothai, which sank in the Gulf of Thailand last year. The shift offers Thailand the opportunity to regroup and explore other potential solutions for its naval defense needs, away from the complexities and delays of the submarine deal. Thailand’s military committee has called the navy to provide further details on this submarine-to-frigate transition and the retrieval of the sunken HTMS 442 Sukhothai, with these developments set to unfold in the coming weeks.