Tank order latest push for closer China ties

Tank order latest push for closer China ties

Chinese marines and Thai sailors march in the ongoing Blue Strike 2016 war games due to wind up next week in Chon Buri province. (Bangkok Post photo)
Chinese marines and Thai sailors march in the ongoing Blue Strike 2016 war games due to wind up next week in Chon Buri province. (Bangkok Post photo)

Two years since it took office, the military regime has continued to strengthen ties with China, especially through closer military cooperation.

The push for closer ties as guided by the regime's "big brother", Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, is signified via the arms purchase that covers 28 main battle tanks, the Model VT4, worth US$4.9 million (178 million baht). There is a plan to buy more for three battalions.

The purchase will accommodate a restructuring plan for the cavalry battalion. Thailand is the first country to buy this model. This is the major reason why China has opened a service centre in Thailand under a government-to-government (G-to-G) deal.

The centre, which is run by Norinco, will supply spare parts to the tanks in addition to providing maintenance with a one-year warranty. The first batch of VT4 tanks, totalling 28, will be delivered in March 2018.

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

Army chief Thirachai Nakwanich who has visited the tank factory, together with the army's procurement team, insisted the Chinese tanks are good and suit the army's needs.

They will be the first Chinese tanks in the army after more than a decade. The army under then army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh bought T69 tanks from China in 1987 at a low price. The tanks had been decommissioned because there were no spare parts. The VT4 gained slightly more points compared to the T90S model from Russia.

Apart from the tank purchase plan, the navy also hopes to buy three Yuan-class submarines, worth 36 billion baht, from China even though the regime had to put the purchase plan on hold for more than a year due to public disapproval.

It's known the navy, despite preferring German subs, decided to go for the Chinese products for two reasons. One is the lower prices; the other is for the sake of good Thai-Sino ties.

The military regime, with strong support for the navy's sub plan, has told the navy to adjust the procurement method to extend the payment period from seven to 11 years. The total budget must come from the navy, not the central budget.

The fate of the sub purchase plan depends on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Gen Prawit.

Another attempt to boost Sino-Thai relations is through a plan to dig a canal that traverses the southern isthmus, proposed by a military faction in the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), in talks with the Chinese private sector.

Leading the NRSA's military faction in proposing the canal plan which would link the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand is Lt Gen Thawatchai Samutsakorn.

Yet neither the prime minister nor Gen Prawit appeared to show any interest as they know it would draw opposition from those with security concerns.

Gen Thawatchai told the media the NRSA received instructions from the prime minister to study the proposal and forward it to the government. Yet Gen Prayut insisted the canal digging would not take place in this government.

Gen Thawatchai, who studied in Class 12 at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School with Gen Prayut, insisted the study would continue with financial support from the private sector.

And we should not to forget the Thai-Chinese marine joint drill under code name "Blue Strike 2016" is under way at Sattahip and Chanthaburi until June 7. The efforts to warm military ties will intensify further with a joint drill in the area of disaster relief involving other Asean countries in Sattahip and Chanthaburi in September.

More importantly, China's Defence Minister and State Councillor Gen Chang Wanquan has solicited support from Thailand for a joint drill and patrol between China and Asean countries in the South China Sea. He raised the issue at a meeting with Gen Prawit on the sidelines of the 10th Asean Defence Ministers Meeting in Vientiane.

Wassana Nanuam

Senior news reporter

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

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