As the current government’s term will soon end, it’s bewildering to see how the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) is apparently speeding up its decision-making process on whether it will continue with a highly questionable submarine procurement from China.
The RTN is reportedly sending a team of its officers to Wuhan to observe performance tests on the Chinese-built CHD620 submarine engines between Feb 7 and March 4.
It can only be hoped that the trip to Wuhan is merely a fact-finding mission.
Indeed, parliament’s Lower House should also send a neutral team of representatives, including experts, to learn about the engine performance instead of leaving our navy officials alone with the selling company — China Shipbuilding & Offshore International Co (CSOC).
The RTN’s quest to get submarines — the first such purchase in eight decades — ran into hurdles after CSOC tried to offer the CHD620, a prototype engine to fit in its S26T Yuan-class submarine. This violated the original procurement contract that the submarines be installed with respected German-made MTU396 engines.
The Germans, though, refused to sell their engine to the Chinese.
RTN then permitted a replacement engine on the condition that the alternative must have been used before, at least in service of the seller’s country: the Chinese navy in this case.
But the CHD620 is a prototype that has not been used, not even in China’s navy. If RTN agreed, Thailand would be the first, alongside Pakistan’s navy, to use this model.
As of now, RTN has not yet made a decision.
Former navy chief Adm Somprasong Nilsamai had insisted on having the German-made MTU396 engine in the submarines, and the current navy chief shares the same stance, but the Thai government, due to kreng jai, appears reluctant to reject the Chinese offer.
But PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, in April last year, did make a bold and clear public statement that the government would cancel the deal if China were unable to fit the engines specified in the purchase agreement.
Recently, he said at a Defence Committee meeting that the CHD620 is, in fact, not meant to serve as a main engine.
In September, the RTN tested the CHD620 but did not then approve it due to ongoing doubts over its untested reliability.
Either way, we are at the point now where the RTN should and must leave this matter for the next government and the next defence minister to manage, and it should not be determined by diplomacy with the Chinese government.
There are many issues which are needed to be dealt with outside of the engine issue. The Thai government also needs to decide on the other two submarines it agreed to buy from CSOC. What will the government do if it wants to cancel the deal? What will the RTN then do to get new subs? Etc etc.
Dealing with such issues takes time and should not be rushed. The process, likewise, needs to be more transparent and inclusive.
The latest fatal accident with HTMS Sukhothai shows the safety of vessels is a paramount issue. Policymakers in the armed forces and lawmakers must spend time screening the best subs for our navy — not the ones that the selling company is trying to offload.