The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) is set to receive three Type 039B Yuan-class submarines from China at a total cost of US$1.1 billion. Currently the RTN does not field any submarines though it has attempted to obtain them in recent years as many other regional powers already have. On April 24, the RTN officially submitted its plan to procure up to three submarines by the end of the decade though many already knew of the RTNs plans beforehand. This should not be seen solely as an indication of the RTN working to advance its capabilities but also as a sign of a growing relationship between Bangkok and Beijing. Since last year’s coup in Thailand, Bangkok has been working on expanding its ties with China and this submarine purchase is a good step in that direction.
The submarines to be acquired are commonly referred to as the Type 041 though their actual designation in China is Type 039B; their NATO designation is Yuan. Yuan class submarines have been in commission in China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) since 2006 and so far 12 have been launched with more on the way. Pakistan is currently in talks to procure eight in the coming years.
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The Type 039B features advanced weaponry and an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system which allows the submarine to stay underwater for longer periods of time than a traditional diesel-electric submarine. This technology is based on Stirling engines imported from Sweden in the 1980s. This is the first time that Chinese built submarines have been chosen by a country in an open competition. Chinese submarines have been exported before to Bangladesh and Pakistan but in those cases they were direct orders.
The RTN committee tasked with choosing the submarine voted 14-3 in favor of the Yuan-class offered by China. With the budget the RTN had to operate with, the Chinese package offered the most which includes training, and an eight-year weaponry and parts support package. Admiral Kraisorn Chansuvanich, Commander-in-Chief of the RTN noted that with the budget, the RTN would only be able to acquire two submarines from other countries without weaponry rather than the three with weaponry it will receive from China.
It is believed that submarines will be of use to Thailand to ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Thailand, especially if the disputes in the South China Sea escalate out of that region though that rationale is questioned by some. Thailand can use its submarines as a deterrent to prevent surface forces of other navies from entering the Gulf of Thailand. The acquisition of the submarines will also reduce the RTNs dependence on surface platforms. In the region currently Singapore fields four submarines, Malaysia two, Indonesia two with plans to acquire 10 more, Vietnam four with two more to be delivered, and the Philippines plan to acquire three.
Several countries had attempted to secure the submarine contract with Thailand with various platforms being offered. ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) of Germany early this year offered its Type 209/1400mod and Type 210mod class submarines. The Type 210mod is based on the Norwegian Ula-class and is touted by TKMS as being well suited for navies that are acquiring their first submarine capability. Also of importance is the capability of the Type 210mod in littoral environments such as the Gulf of Thailand where large deep diving submarines are unnecessary. Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering of South Korea offered its Chang Bogo (Type 209) class. The Type 209 was originally the least expensive submarine offered but its package would not include training and weaponry. Saab of Sweden showed off its A26 which is still under development though the Swedish government has already approved a plan for the acquisition of two to enter service by 2019. Thailand also evaluated the Russian Kilo-class Project 636. Just this past week, Vietnam received its fourth Kilo from Russia out of a planned six as part of its first ever submarine acquisition program.
Thailand – China – U.S. Relations
The May 2014 coup which overthrew the elected government in Thailand was largely condemned by Western nations though it did appear to have some support from China. Since then, Thailand has been seen making moves at improving relations with China while its longstanding relationship with the U.S. has deteriorated somewhat. Recently on the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Thailand and China, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said “China is a close friend who has never left us during difficult circumstances.” Chinese influence over Thailand is expected to grow in the coming years on a variety of levels including trade and investment.
Following the 2014 coup, the U.S. suspended $3.5 million in military aid to Thailand while many in the Obama administration warned of the negative implications the coup would have on the U.S.-Thai relationship. The U.S. State Department has even said that the coup was among the most significant setbacks to freedoms in Southeast Asia in 2014. Regardless, the U.S. will still hold its annual Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand next year which have taken place every year since 1982.
The decision of the RTN to acquire three submarines from China should not be alarming from a security point of view. Thailand has publicly expressed interest in acquiring submarines for some time though all past attempts eventually failed. Furthermore, the region is already bristling with submarines while Thailand has none. What is most important about the purchase is that it signals a move closer to China. True, the package offered by China included extras which were not offered by other countries and so from a budgetary perspective, Thailand made the right choice. On the other hand, while Thailand still enjoys ties to the west, this purchase allows for closer military ties with China to be made. For China which is finding few friends in the region due to its actions in the South China Sea and elsewhere, any step towards greater cooperation with a regional power should be welcomed.