BANGKOK - Thailand's navy has approved a 36 billion baht (S$1.4 billion) plan to buy three submarines from China, the southeast Asian nation's defence minister said on Thursday, in what could be a sign the country is cosying up to the regional superpower.
An army-led coup toppled Thailand's elected government in May last year, after months of sometimes violent street protests. The coup was widely condemned by Western nations, which downgraded diplomatic ties, but the military rulers claimed to have support from China following the move.
Since then, Thailand, a traditional ally of the United States, has sought to improve ties with neighbours, and stepped up engagement with China, as Beijing increases its influence in the region with a raft of loans and aid for infrastructure.
Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said the submarine purchase formed part of a bigger Thai defence budget for 2016. The budget of 207 billion baht represents an increase of 7 percent over 2015. "The Thai navy's committee, consisting of 17 people, has decided which submarines it will choose," Prawit told reporters. "We did so after looking at submarines of various countries and found China's to be the best value. We had to look at the price, quality and other aspects." Prawit did not say when the submarines might be delivered, however, as the plan will now go to the cabinet for approval.
China is the world's third largest arms exporter, think tank the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says, but little is known about its exports as it does not publish data on such sales.
Officials say Thailand's quest for submarines makes strategic sense and could help it ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Thailand if territorial disputes in the South China Sea spiral out of control.
China claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.
Thailand's purchase helps it catch up with neighbours, such as Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam, who have bought submarines.
Each submarine will cost 12 billion baht, said Prawit, but he declined to comment on reporters' queries about any advantages to Thailand from buying Chinese submarines.
The submarine acquisition plan is not new. Thailand has never had submarines and has tried, since the 1990s, to ink deals with several countries, including South Korea and Germany.
Thailand's defense spending, which typically increases after a coup, grew 5 percent this year from 2014.