Bangkok's Plan to Buy High-Cost Warship from China Raises Alarm

FILE - Chinese frigate Rizhao (598) is seen ahead of scheduled naval exercises with Russian, Chinese and South African navies, in Richards Bay, South Africa, Feb. 22, 2023.

Thailand’s new civilian-led administration is facing criticism over its plan to go forward with the purchase of a high-cost navy frigate from China in a deal first negotiated by the previous military government.

The purchase of the vessel was negotiated after China reneged on a 2017 plan to sell Thailand a S26T Yuan-class submarine because it could not obtain diesel engines from Germany, which forbids them to be used in Chinese military hardware, according to the Bangkok Post.

However the frigate, which would add to an existing fleet of seven mostly Chinese-built frigates, will cost the country $480 million — $28 million more than the submarine would have cost.

That has been criticized by the opposition Move Forward Party, which argues that the submarine deal should simply have been allowed to lapse.

"Chinese authority should rather take responsibility for failing the agreement," said Move Forward MP Rangsiman Rome, who was quoted by Matichon, a major Thai newspaper and website.

Thai Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang has defended the purchase, saying that revoking the deal or asking for a refund from China “would only impact other aspects of cooperation and relations” between the two countries.

Sutin also said that the submarine deal is being shelved rather than replaced by the new warship deal.

Scott Edwards, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Reading in the U.K., told VOA there may be other countries where Thailand could purchase a frigate but that political considerations can go into a purchase.

"Vessels sometimes rely on originating countries for spare parts and maintenance," he wrote in an email exchange.

John Bradford, executive director of the Japan-based Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, pointed out some advantages to a frigate over a submarine. He said the training and maintenance costs should be lower, and that a frigate would be more useful in dealing with challenges posed by Thailand's "exceptionally complex" maritime environment.

Those challenges include fishing regulation enforcement, guarding against smuggling, ocean resource protection and governance over waters that face both the Indian and Pacific oceans, Bradford wrote in an email to VOA.

Edwards agreed that a frigate is more sensible than a submarine, which would likely be underutilized and of limited use to Thailand.

"While Thailand may want submarines to match the subsurface capabilities of its neighbors, frigates can also be equipped with anti-submarine warfare capabilities," said Edwards, who is an expert in Southeast Asia's maritime security governance.

However, he questioned Bangkok's decision to purchase a frigate from Beijing, citing China's assertive behavior in the South China Sea.

"China's actions in the South China Sea should still be a consideration despite Thailand not being in direct dispute," he said.

Thailand previously purchased two Naresuan-class and four Chao Phraya-class frigates from China as well as one frigate from South Korea. Most of the missile-launching warships have been in commission since the 1990s.

While Thailand has relied on both the United States and China for military hardware, the kingdom shifted toward Beijing after a 2014 coup prompted the U.S. to suspend millions of dollars in military financing and funding for military education and training.

Washington normalized its relations with Bangkok after a 2019 election, widely seen as legitimizing the military-led government. The vote was held under a junta-written constitution and resulted in the victory of coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Dulyapak Preecharush, associate professor of Asian studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok, noted that Thailand has been led by a civilian government since August and argued that the kingdom should maintain a nonalignment policy, including more balance on military hardware procurement.

"Thai [Defense Ministry] has acknowledged the current geopolitical competition between the US and China and will put more balance on Thai relations with major powers," he wrote in a recent email to VOA Thai.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Thailand bought 33% of its military material from South Korea, 14% from China and 10% from the United States during the period from 2018 to 2022.

Edwards, from the University of Reading, agreed that the current Thai government, led by the Pheu Thai Party and consisting of pro-military and pro-establishment coalitions, is likely to rebalance toward the U.S.

But "it is unlikely such shifts will be dramatic in nature," he wrote, noting that as recently as May, the U.S. rejected selling F-35 stealth fighter jets to Thailand.

Thailand's trade volume with China in 2022 was about $135 billion, according to China's state-run Business Information Center. Its total trade with the United States that year was an estimated $79.1 billion, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.