High-stakes submarine talks
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High-stakes submarine talks

A Chinese delegation is visiting Thailand and will meet the government on Wednesday to negotiate a long-overdue submarine purchase. Then, the Thai government will make the final decision on whether to ditch or take the submarine.

The Chinese delegation comprises military officials and representatives from China Shipbuilding & Offshore International Co (CSOC). The state-owned CSOC is the maker of an S26T Yuan-class submarine that China contracted to supply to the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) under a 2017 procurement agreement between the two governments.

At first, the country planned to buy three subs and paid part of the downpayment for the first vessel, which cost over 12 billion baht. The first delivery is this year. However, procurement ran into a hurdle after the CSOC could not fit its submarine with a German-made MTU 396 diesel engine, as stipulated in the contract. Germany refused to sell the engine to China as it was designated as a military/defence item. After a contractual violation, RTN told the seller it would not take the submarine and paused orders for the other two.

This week's negotiations are the latest attempt for the seller to seal the deal. Defence Minister Sutin Klunsang said there are two options.

First, the submarine procurement deal will be sunk, and a frigate will be used as a replacement, which would also mean that the CSOC will not return the advance money that the Thai government has already paid.

The second choice is for Thailand to buy all three S26T Yuan-class submarines under a new deal. Mr Sutin has also said that diplomacy and the need to maintain good relations will play a role in decision-making.

Amidst it all, the government has rarely talked about safety concerns.

Lest we forget, the very reason the RTN did not take this submarine is that the CSOC is offering a CHD620 diesel engine, which is a prototype that has not been properly used in real conditions. Under the contract, the RTN allows an alternative engine on condition that the engine must be equivalent to MTU 396 and has been used by the navy of the maker's country.

So far, Pakistan is the only other country that has ordered submarines fitted with CHD620 from China. Unlike the RTN, Pakistan's navy has used submarines since the 1970s, and it has a wealth of experience in submarine technology and has worked with China to make its own submarines.

The RTN's history and experience with submarines are limited to buying four mini-subs from Japan in 1938 for coastal patrol use. They were decommissioned in 1951. Given the RTN's lack of experience, they must use proven technology. Indeed, the RTN in November 2022 tested the CHD620 diesel engine and rejected it but later changed its mind after visiting China last year, publicly saying that it could accept the Chinese submarine with the CHD620.

However, questions will remain about the CHD620 engine's reliability and safety. Is it fair and safe for our sailors to serve on submarines fitted with prototype engines simply because their government wants to nourish diplomatic ties with the selling country?

The submarine deal is a big test for the Pheu Thai-led government and its mission to "reform" the military. In dealing with China, it will also show Pheu Thai's real negotiating skills. It's hoped the government will make well-informed decisions that, first and foremost, benefit the country and ensure the safety of our service members.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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