New subs sign of troubles to come?
The Indian navy just transferred one of its Russian-made Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines to the Myanmar navy in late 2019, making it the first submarine ever to be deployed by Myanmar. If there are no technical problems, as Vice Admiral Prachachart Sirisawat, spokesman and deputy chief-of-staff of the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) speculated in early December, Myanmar could have put its newly acquired submarine into action in the Andaman Sea from Dec 24 last year.
Myanmar's acquisition of this new naval capability appears to pose an unprecedented, major maritime security challenge to its neighbour, Thailand. The RTN was on alert early last month and quickly ordered close monitoring of Myanmar's submarine deployment in the Andaman Sea to deal with the "new situation". How could Myanmar's submarine acquisition impact Myanmar-Thai maritime security in the Andaman Sea?
Myanmar-Thailand border disputes remain security flashpoints between the two countries. Even though Myanmar and Thailand have rigorously worked on demarcating their land border, some maritime boundaries between them in the Andaman Sea remain unsettled. The standing agreement was ratified by the two countries in February 1982, but it did not determine the sovereignty over Ginga Island (Koh Lam), Koh Khan Island and an unpopulated cliff (Koh Ki Nok) at the mouth of the Pakchan River.
Although Myanmar and Thailand have engaged in a series of negotiations -- in 1985, 1989 and 1990 -- there has been no progress. Myanmar and Thailand ended up declaring the three islands "no man's land". According to Maung Myoe, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the International University of Japan, "the [maritime] issue has remained a source of tension, which led to a series of naval confrontations and clashes in 1998 and 2003". Tensions rose again in September 2013, when Myanmar warship PGM Number 426, as the RTN told the Bangkok Post on Sept 21, 2013, opened fire on a Thai fishing boat, alleging illegal fishing in Myanmar's waters.
With the unsettled maritime boundary and the sporadic confrontations between Myanmar and Thailand, Myanmar's submarine acquisition poses a critical new challenge to the Thai navy -- particularly the 3rd Naval Area Command, which is responsible for controlling territories in the Andaman Sea.
Even though Myanmar has only received one submarine from India, it is highly likely that the Myanmar navy will acquire more submarines over the short to medium term. Myanmar is widely believed to have been negotiating more submarine deals with Russia, India and China.
China, in particular, has become a major supplier of heavy military hardware, including submarines, in the region. Bangladesh, for example, acquired two refurbished Type 035G-class submarines ("Ming-class" submarines) from China in 2017. During an official visit to Russia in 2013, according to a news report by The Irrawaddy in May 2017, General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's army chief, expressed interest in purchasing at least "two Kilo-class submarines" from Russia.
Strategically, submarines play critical roles in enhancing war capabilities -- such as firing torpedoes, launching missiles, laying anti-ship mines, and detecting other ships and submarines -- and conducting surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence missions.
Submarine warfare, according to Sam Bateman, a former Naval Officer and Professorial Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (Ancors) at the University of Wollongong in Australia, is "a classic force multiplier requiring a disproportionate response from an adversary".
The case of the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina in 1982 offers an excellent evidence of a disproportionate response of the British military resulting from Argentine's submarine warfare. As Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at King's College London, wrote in his book Signals of War: The Falklands Conflict of 1982, "Although the Argentine submarine threat was limited, it caused enormous bother to the British task force."
While Thailand is on alert for the "new situation", the modernisation of its military in recent years, especially its navy, poses the exact same security concerns to Myanmar. The Thai navy is also scheduled to acquire its first Yuan-class S26T diesel-electrict submarine from China in 2023.
Indeed, the Thai navy has tried in vain to buy submarines for years. In 2011, it proposed to buy a fleet of six German-made second-hand submarines. The proposal, however, was rejected by then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra due to questionable cost-effectiveness and lack of transparency.
The submarine procurement proposal, however, was reinvigorated after Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha swept to power through a military coup in May 2014. The Thai junta cabinet approved in principle the purchase of three Yuan-class submarines from China at a price of 36 billion baht. All three Yuan-class submarines, according to the Thai navy, will be deployed in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
Generally, the modernisation of a country's military generates a security dilemma for other countries in the region, particularly those with whom the country shares an immediate border. In January 2017, Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, then-Thai defence minister, supported the navy's submarine procurement plan saying: "The Thai navy requires submarines to maintain a military balance in the region because other neighbouring countries already have them. It will help protect our sovereignty, as well as our abundant marine resources, notably in the Andaman Sea."
About four months later, during a press conference on May 3, 2017, Maj Gen Myint New, Deputy Defence Minister of Myanmar, pointed out: "Our neighbours have submarines and we want them as well, but it will depend on the state budget. The military leadership is considering it."
Even though there are no clear links between Myanmar and Thailand's submarine procurement plans, the timeline of their naval modernisation plans suggest that security perceptions do matter after all.
More importantly, submarines offer greater capabilities to conduct military operations, including surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence far away from their own territorial seas into exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and the high seas. The growing frequency of naval operations within a confined body of water, however, will only elevate the chance of naval incidents.
As Sam Bateman wrote in Perils of the Deep: The Dangers of Submarine Proliferation in the Seas of East Asia, "Submarine warfare and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) would be major features of any future regional conflict at sea."
Since the Myanmar and Thai militaries don't seem to trust each other, any small naval incident could lead to a major armed clash, or even a full-scale war due to misperceptions, misinterpretations and miscalculations.
Unsettled maritime disputes, previous experiences with naval confrontations and military clashes, and trends of naval modernisation have created a strategic "mistrust" between the two militaries. This "new situation" seems to be a warning sign that fresh military tensions between Thailand and Myanmar over the unsettled maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea are likely in the years to come.
Sek Sophal is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre, the Ritsumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies in Beppu, Japan. He is also a contributor to The Bangkok Post.
Researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre
Sek Sophal is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre, the Risumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, Japan.