In an interesting turn of events, Thailand’s Defense Minister, Sutin Klungsang, recently revealed that the Royal Thai Navy has placed an order for a Chinese frigate, rather than proceeding with the intended purchase of a Chinese submarine. This new development emerged due to the specified submarine’s inability to accommodate a German engine as originally requested by Thailand.
This does not imply a cancellation of the submarine procurement. Instead, Sutin stated during his visit to navy headquarters on a sunny Friday that the submarine project was not entirely written off. It has just been put on hold for a certain non-specified time until future readiness.
Let’s wind the clock back to 2017, the year that the original accord for the acquisition of the S26T Yuan-class submarine was penned. As per the agreement, the submarine was slated to be equipped with a German-engineered diesel motor. However, Germany put the brakes on such a deal, forbidding the proposed engines from being integrated into any Chinese military gear owing to policy restrictions.
The plot thickened when Beijing put forward a substitute proposition for powering the submarine—a Chinese-engineered engine. The alternative caused a stir in Thailand’s military HQ, raising questions about its adequacy. There ensued a series of intense rounds of negotiation, with the Chinese representatives tirelessly advocating for their domestically made engine.
Ultimately, the Navy concurred with the Chinese proposal. This change of heart in the valiant navy’s position came to light when the former chief, Adm Choengchai Chomchoengpaet stated that he would place the request before the cabinet to approve a submarine engine made in China.
However, the government decided to stick to their guns regarding the German-engine demand and promptly asked the navy department to reconfigure its project plans. Two proposals emerged from the situation: one being the purchase of a frigate capable of combating submarines, and the second, an offshore patrol vessel procurement.
The Defense Minister and the government then made an executive decision, selecting the frigate option despite the cost it carried—17 billion baht—which was 1 billion baht more expensive than the submarine procurement plan.
“The frigate option will slightly affect the navy’s capabilities compared with a submarine project. However, the navy can deal with it,” explained the defense minister.
On a diplomatic front, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin had discussed this option earlier this week in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Qiang. Both leaders agreed to consider the Thai proposal.
Responding to queries about the current status of the submarine project, the defense minister confirmed that the submarine’s construction had already commenced partially. He expressed optimism about China finding a solution for the partially completed vessel.
The submarine deal which involved China Shipbuilding & Offshore International, a state-owned company, has been a widely debated topic since its initiation in 2017. Besides the engine type controversy, critics have raised concerns about the submarine’s practicality in Thailand’s shallow territorial waters and if a frigate might prove to be a better fit.