Thailand’s Defence Minister and Prime Minister have both come out in support of the decision to buy a Chinese-made frigate to replace a submarine the navy had ordered in 2017.
For the first time, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has spoken publicly about the proposed conversion deal, and he and Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang both agree that it will not put the country at a disadvantage.
The prime minister said he was hopeful for developments in the frigate contract. Mr. Srettha said, “Please allow the Defence Ministry to get on with its work over the negotiation [with Beijing].”
Mr Sutin has stated he is prepared to defend the navy’s decision to spend an extra billion baht on a frigate rather than a submarine, despite mounting opposition to the idea.
On Monday, the minister of defence said the planned conversion had been thoroughly researched, including the purchase agreement’s legal provisions. In light of the situation, he concluded, “I think it’s the best way out.”
In 2017, the navy placed an order for a submarine of the S26T Yuan class, with the intention of fitting it with a German-made engine. The original idea had to be scrapped, though, when Germany refused to let its engines be installed on a Chinese-built warship.
The Chinese government proposed installing a Chinese engine in the submarine, but the navy declined. After reaching an impasse, the government ordered the navy to reevaluate its purchasing strategy.
Following the government’s directive, the navy recommended two vessels to add to Thailand’s maritime defence: a submarine-fighting frigate and an offshore patrol boat. The Defence Ministry decided to spend the extra billion Thai Baht on the frigate instead of the submarine.
Mr. Sutin said he would be meeting with members of the House committee on national security to discuss the purchase move. He expressed his eagerness to explain the terms of the revised agreement.
The minister claimed that the navy’s enlisted men and women saw the wisdom in the change, despite rumours to the contrary.
Mr. Sutin further elaborated that despite the purchase move, the government would not be at a disadvantage because Beijing had not violated the deal with the navy. He characterised it as a “government to government” (G2G) agreement that takes into account bilateral ties and strategic partnership.
In the future, the Defence Ministry will be in charge of discussions with Beijing since “we can’t focus solely on the contractual condition of a purchase,” he said.
Meanwhile, Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, who served on a House committee that reviewed the national expenditure budget for the previous year, expressed his confusion about the defence minister’s decision to change the terms of a purchase rather than terminate the contract. Instead of coming away empty-handed, the ministry decided to take something.
A punishment, refund, and possible blacklist await Beijing if they fail to deliver, he warned.
Mr. Somchai added that the government must return any payments already made towards the acquisition and begin the process of acquiring the frigate again in accordance with applicable legislation.
He argued that the Defence Minister should not have sole authority over frigate procurement plans.
Mr. Somchai insisted the navy has a lot to explain in light of allegations it spent nearly 9 billion baht on infrastructure to accommodate the now-defunct submarine project, including a 995 million baht submarine maintenance depot and a 7 billion baht deposit on the 17 billion baht submarine.