31 January 2017
In June 2015, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) elected to buy three submarines from China in what would be one of the most expensive single acquisitions in the country’s history (See: “How Did China Just Win Thailand’s New Submarine Bid?”). However, since then, the proposed purchase has been repeatedly delayed, leaving observers to wonder if the country’s long-held dream of acquiring the capability may once again be deferred.
But as I observed in a recent piece, indications are that we may be finally seeing progress on this front in 2017 (See: “When Are China’s Submarines Coming to Thailand?”). The RTN has released a reference price document detailing specifications about the purchase of the first of three submarines, paving the way for a government-to-government deal between Bangkok and Beijing later this year. The submarine purchase is also being linked to the RTN’s broader procurement plans, which is important for funding considerations.
On January 24, Thailand’s Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan confirmed that the government had approved 13.5 billion baht ($383 million) in funding to support the RTN’s purchase of the first of the three submarines, with the total cost of the three boats being 36 billion baht ($1 billion). Local media outlets quoted Prawit as saying that the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) had already approved funding to buy the first vessel, which had been the understanding of close observers of the acquisition.
Meanwhile, RTN spokesman Chumpon Lumpikanon told Reuters that though negotiations were still ongoing over things like the equipment to be installed on the submarine, “this year there will definitely be a signing agreement as we have the budget.” While Prawit indicated that Thailand’s cabinet would have to approve the final plan – previous plans have been floated but put on hold – Chumpon said that the plan was already in line with the regulations set forth by the Prime Minister’s Office. That suggests there are few remaining obstacles to a deal in 2017.
Chumphon added that China would take six years to build the submarine, and the budget had been earmarked to pay for the submarine over those six years. If that is indeed the case, it would be in line with the previous estimates that the first submarine will likely be delivered to Thailand by the early 2020s.
As I noted in a previous piece, while these specifics suggest that there continues to be political will to see this purchase through, for those familiar with Thailand’s decades-long quest for submarines, that also still leaves plenty of time for even more hiccups further down the line.