Thailand puts Chinese submarine order on hold to fund coronavirus fight

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Thailand will suspend some arms purchases, including orders for two Chinese submarines, as it cuts its military budget to fund the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Other buys facing the axe are two South Korean jet trainers and military hardware from China and the United States.

“We put the purchase of the second and third submarines on hold,” Royal Thai Navy spokesman Vice Admiral Prachachart Sirisawat told news site BenarNews on Wednesday.

The construction of a pier and maintenance facilities for the submarine had also been delayed due to the budget cuts, he added.

Also quoting Prachachart, the Bangkok Post reported that the Royal Thai Navy had cut its 2020 budget by a third, and spending on the second and third submarines from China would be deferred to fiscal 2021.

Thailand ordered three S-26T submarines from China in 2017 for 36 billion baht (US$1.1 billion), with payments over 11 years.

Work on the first submarine started in 2018 and the vessel is expected to be delivered in 2023. It is being built in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected. The other two submarines are expected to be completed in 2027.

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Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said China would no doubt prefer the contract to be extended rather than cancelled because the S-26T was modified for the Thai navy.

Bangkok had approved a 233 billion baht defence budget for this fiscal year but its defence ministry announced on Wednesday that it had cut that by about 7.7 per cent.

Of the 18 billion baht cut, 4.1 billion baht came from the navy’s budget. The Thai air force also lost more than 20 per cent of its spending allocations, forcing it to suspend its 2.4 billion baht purchase of two South Korean T50 advanced jets.

The government said it would redirect the money to combating the coronavirus.

Thailand bought US$356 million in arms from China from 2016 to 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Collin Koh, research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the arms purchases had always been controversial but the junta government, which came to power through a coup d’etat in 2014, had to reconsider the orders as a combination of sociopolitical instability and an economic downturn look poised to threaten Thailand’s long-term security.

“The military has all along been sensitive to Thai public opinion where it comes to arms purchases … The public distrust in the military figures running the government has been notable,” Koh said.

However, Thailand’s major procurement from the United States, including eight Boeing AH-6i attack helicopters and related hardware in a deal worth US$400 million, and a second lot of 50 units of refurbished Stryker infantry fighting vehicles worth 4.5 billion baht would still go ahead.

“The US and Thailand are treaty allies with close ties, the American influence within Thailand cannot be ignored,” Song said. “The China-US relationship has deteriorated so there is going to be great uncertainty also in China’s arms sales to US allies in the future.”

In recent years the Thai government has become a major buyer of Chinese weapons.

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In 2016 and 2017, the army bought 38 VT-4 main battle tanks from Chinese defence manufacturer Norinco for a total of 7 billion baht. In 2019, it received another 10 VT-4 tanks and 38 VN-1 armoured infantry vehicles together with other military Chinese equipment.

In September 2019, in addition to the submarines, the Thai navy ordered a 071E landing platform dock from China State Shipbuilding Corporation, the first international sale of the technology for China.

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