The submarine deal that won’t go away
Despite widespread public opposition, the Thai navy inked a 13.5-billion-baht contract last week for the first of what will be three Chinese submarines in an 11-year deal worth 36 billion baht. Myriad criticisms have been expressed in as many media platforms by both experts and observers alike. Yet there are four broader implications which argue against the submarine deal and warrant a mention on record.
First, this is a deal from the barrel of a military dictatorship. The previous request under the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was for used German submarines. The military coup in May 2014 gave the generals and admirals a chance to do it the way they really wanted. In 2015, under the current coup government, they put in a proposal for a brand new submarine fleet. Unsurprisingly, it was approved last month under a cloud of secrecy and was rammed through the cabinet, even though the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) had yet to complete its report on whether the purchase was legal and clean.
Naturally, no state agencies came out against the subs deal. Eventually, after the deed was done last week, the OAG suddenly cleared it. The rubber-stamp National Legislative Assembly is certainly going to approve it. The navy will thus get its controversial submarines at a time when slow economic growth weighs heavily in favour of rice and stomachs over guns and generals. It was ironic the navy made its most ardent plea in a press conference held on its unused aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet, which has become more of a museum piece than a combat ship.
Unless the subs can be financially sustained in their maintenance and operation, they could well end up like our aircraft carrier, which was Southeast Asia’s first when it was built and commissioned in the mid-1990s.
The carrier was relatively small and geared for UK-made Harrier jump jets with vertical take-off and/or advanced helicopter gunships. When the Harriers were decommissioned after they became too old, the carrier became just about useless.
To be sure, HTMS Chakri Naruebet is known for disaster relief, including the tsunami in December 2004, but not combat. The most militarised use of the carrier, in command and control coordination with the army and air force, was the evacuation of Thais following the riots and the burning of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh in January 2003.
The submarines are fancy and prestigious but the military has not made a persuasive case for their acquisition at such a high price. Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon’s claim of protecting Thai resources in the Andaman Sea and keeping up with neighbours that have submarines is lightweight. So close to shore, without blue-water intentions of power projection afar, that job is better done by other vessels such as frigates and coast guard patrols with radar and satellite access in conjunction with aircraft monitoring. Our neighbours which have submarines are fundamentally maritime, island countries that need such capability.
Second, the subs deal should fit within Thailand’s geostrategic, interests but they do not. At issue is not necessity but suitability. Thailand is traditionally a land power, not a maritime player in the region. Thai history is rife with land battles with next door neighbours. There are no major sea victories or defeats in Thai military history. When the Japanese invaded in December 1941, the Thai military, particularly its navy, put up an admirable but futile resistance. After several days, diplomacy settled military hostilities.
The Thai navy was known more as a domestic political actor. For several years after World War II, it was a political base of a major political faction, headed by Pridi Banomyong, which tried in vain to win back power. By June 1951, the Thai navy staged a failed coup against the incumbent government and its political role was finished thereafter.
Thailand’s geography and military acumen have always made it a land power. Whatever naval capability it acquired was domestic in political orientation. Buying cheap Chinese submarines is unlikely to change all of that.
Third, at a time of heightened geopolitical rivalry and tensions in the region, Thailand should not be falling head over heels for any major power. It should tread a balancing act much as it has done for centuries. Buying Chinese subs, tanks and an assortment of other weapons is a long-term commitment in terms of training, funding, maintenance and geopolitical association.
Why take sides and hop in bed with the Chinese when they have problems with the Japanese, who are indispensable in our economic livelihood, and the Americans, who were instrumental in keeping us away from the ravages of communist expansionism? It is folly to think that we have to woo authoritarian Beijing just because we have a government that came from a military coup.
Tokyo has time for Thailand, and so do others, too. China’s submarines, which are historically less tried and tested compared to Germany’s or France’s, risk leading Thailand hook, line and sinker — in a marine metaphor — fully into Beijing’s orbit.
Finally, acquiring submarines for prestige and “face”, let alone the potential kickbacks that have lubricated weapons purchases in the past, risks undermining regional security. Paradoxically, Thailand may be less secure with submarines as regional maritime neighbours eye us with more suspicion, not less. What does a land-based middle power intend to do with submarines?
Asean was set up to keep regional peace and stability. When maritime Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, even Malaysia have submarine capability, it is justifiable. When Thailand does, it raises eyebrows. For these reasons, the submarine deal is a dumb idea. But let it be recorded as a Thai military undertaking without accountability to the potential detriment of regional security and Thailand’s trademark geopolitical balancing feat.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.