Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang have defended the planned purchase of a Chinese-made frigate to replace a submarine the navy had ordered in 2017, describing it as the best option available.
Speaking for the first time on the planned conversion deal, Mr Srettha insisted it would not put the country at a disadvantage, a stand shared by Mr Sutin.
The premier said he expected good news and progress on the frigate deal. “Please allow the Defence Ministry to get on with its work over the negotiation [with Beijing],” Mr Srettha said.
Downplaying growing criticism against the proposed switch, Mr Sutin said he was ready to explain the navy’s plan to purchase a frigate instead of a submarine, a deal which would require forking out an additional one billion baht to cover.
On Monday, the defence minister said the planned conversion had been studied in all aspects, including the legal conditions of the purchase contract.
“I think it’s the best way out under the circumstances,” he said.
The navy ordered the S26T Yuan-class submarine back in 2017, intending to install in it a German-made engine. However, the plan had to be revised, as Germany would not allow its engines to be fitted on a Chinese-made military vessel.
China suggested a Chinese engine be fitted in the submarine, but the navy refused. Following a deadlock, the government told the navy to revise its procurement plan.
In keeping with Thailand’s plan to boost its maritime defence capacity, the navy proposed two options — buy a frigate capable of combating submarines or purchase an offshore patrol vessel. The Defence Ministry opted for the frigate at a cost of 1 billion baht more than the submarine.
Mr Sutin said a House committee on national security headed by the main opposition Move Forward Party was making an appointment to see him to inquire about the purchase switch. He said he was more than happy to explain the new deal.
The minister said the rank and file in the navy understood the merit of the switch, which was not a rushed decision as some have alleged.
Mr Sutin added the government would not suffer an unfair advantage over the purchase switch as Beijing did not break the contract with the navy. He explained it was a government-to-government (G2G) deal that considers the state of bilateral relations and strategic cooperation.
“We can’t focus solely on the contractual condition of a purchase,” he said, adding the Defence Ministry will be handling negotiations with Beijing from now on.
Meanwhile, Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a former House committee member scrutinising last year’s national expenditure budget, said he was baffled by the defence minister’s mindset to convert a purchase rather than cancel an existing deal. The ministry thought it was better to walk away with something rather than end up empty-handed.
“If they (Beijing) can’t deliver, they must be fined and hand over a refund and possibly face a blacklist,” he said.
According to regulations, the government must obtain a full refund for any payment it has made toward the purchase and start anew the process to acquire the frigate, Mr Somchai said.
“This (frigate acquisition plan) is not the sort of decision the defence minister can make on his own,” he said.
Mr Somchai maintained the navy has a lot of explaining to do regarding the allegation it has spent almost 9 billion baht on building infrastructure to accommodate the now-defunct submarine project, including a 995-million-baht submarine maintenance depot as well as the 7 billion baht deposit on the 17-billion-baht submarine.