Bangkok (AFP) – The Thai junta on Tuesday defended $393 million earmarked for a Chinese submarine, batting back criticism of the secrecy of the deal, its high cost and the questionable utility of the warship.
The submarine sale is the latest defence deal between Beijing and Bangkok, who have grown ever closer since Thailand’s 2014 coup.
The Southeast Asian country has already scooped up several dozen Beijing-built tanks and plans to buy three submarines in total — a purchase that will amount to $1 billion.
The military-led cabinet approved the funds for the first submarine purchase last week — a decision that was not made public until Monday, triggering concern about a lack of transparency.
The deal has long fuelled controversy in Thailand, with critics saying the submarines are not needed in a country with shallow surrounding waters and no stake in the South China Sea disputes that have embroiled its neighbours.
The huge cost of the vessel has also raised eyebrows in a kingdom where ordinary people are feeling the pinch of a stuttering economy.
On Tuesday defence minister Prawit Wongsuwon insisted Tuesday the deal was “transparent” and a good bargain for the Thai navy.
“The reason we choose Chinese-built submarines is because they are the cheapest when compared to other countries’ offers,” he told reporters.
The submarines are needed to “protect our natural resources in the Andaman Sea,” he added, stressing that neighbouring countries “all have submarines.”
Prawit said the first submarine will be delivered within the next six years, with two more expected over the next decade.
Defence spending typically surges under coup-installed regimes in Thailand, which has seen more than a dozen putsches in the past 80 years.
The army, navy and air force tussle over the spoils of budget hikes, reflecting the balance of power among the military.
Beijing has stepped into profit off the army’s spending spree since its most recent coup, which strained ties between Bangkok and its longstanding ally Washington.
Thailand last operated submarines in its waters 50 years ago.