By Dipankar Banerjee
A major issue at the conference was Thailand’s projected purchase of three diesel-electric submarines from China. After an ongoing debate for over a year at the military government in Bangkok, it seems to have come to a head last week.
The issue is the THB36 billion (USD 1.3 bn) planned acquisition of three S26T diesel-electric submarines from China. This is a modified export version of the Yuan-class (Type 041). This in turn, is an improved version of Type 039A. It is also the one that Pakistan is acquiring. Further, it is likely to receive six more in the future.
The former Army Chief and now the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, General (Retd) Prawit Wongsuwan, partially confirmed it earlier this week. He conceded that the cost was high and payment may be processed over a deferred and delayed basis. He added, however, that the Chinese were providing the cheapest option. He also claimed that submarines were proliferating in the region and Thailand needed to ‘maintain a balance’. Again, any reference as to whom this was against was absent. Myanmar was, according to him, likely to have a fleet of ten soon (not independently verified).
Although the Thai economy is not booming, it isn’t doing badly either. Tourism, the backbone of the economy, continues to remain high. Russians are fewer and beaches that are reserved for them in advance, almost exclusively, are near deserted. But the Chinese are coming in hordes and spending real money.
Military rule in the country seems to have tightened the corruption and has impressive developmental plans.
The question is in the strategic realm. Thailand has had a long and steady multiple-security relationship with the US and the West. If the deal materializes, what will be its impact?
It is too early to tell. This is one element of the Graham Allison led, Belfer Centre, Harvard, thesis of the “Thucidydes Trap”. The famous historian of the Peloponnesian Wars had postulated that, as new powers emerge and assert themselves, power equations and alliances change and new relationships emerge. This leads to fear and misunderstanding. If this is not handled correctly, it can lead to conflict.
This is going a bit ahead of the debate and discussion. The principal issues in Southeast Asia remain as follows – the possibility of a conflict over new resources in the sea and the question of who exercises control over it. The Hague Arbitration Council’s decision is likely in less than a week. It concentrates the minds of strategic analysts powerfully. Some thoughts from Chonburi will follow tomorrow.
Dipankar Banerjee has served in the Infantry Branch of the Indian Army for 36 years. For the last three decades, he has been associated at senior positions in the Think Tank community in India, in the region and in the world.
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