Prayut has backup if subs plan nosedives
China deal might be tweaked, says PM
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha insisted he has matters all figured out if the submarines budget now being vetted in the House of Representatives falls through.
As defence minister, he has prepared a contingency plan although the priority now was to let the subs budget be scrutinised in line with regulations and procedures.
"If we can't buy the subs, how will we negotiate with China? I've got that covered," the prime minister said. Although Gen Prayut did not go into detail, he said the deal which has been struck with China may have room for tweaking.
The two submarines, costing 22.5 billion baht, require payments spread over seven years.
The first payment of 3 billion baht approved by parliament for the current fiscal year has been reverted to the government to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
An installment earmarked for the next fiscal year may be put on hold given the negative public sentiment toward the procurement.
The budget to buy the second and third submarines from China was scutinised by the sub-committee headed by Suphon Fongngam, an MP from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.
The sub-committee was split equally in its vote, prompting Mr Suphon as a chairman to cast his deciding vote in favour of passing the subs budget intact.
The budget was then put to the main House committee examining next fiscal year's budget headed by Deputy Finance Minister Santi Promphat.
The main committee, which was originally set to deliberate the subs budget on Wednesday, has rescheduled its discussion for today and would vote whether or not to leave the portion intact on Monday.
"The question has to do with whether it is possible that what we discussed with China [regarding the subs deal] could be made flexible with the repayments being extended further," Gen Prayut said.
This has to be thrashed out and it involves several parties, the prime minister said. Gen Prayut maintained he never said the subs deal has to be pushed through at all costs.
"But it was in the headlines anyway and I did not mean that," he said.
What he has done is explain the necessity of purchasing the submarines for defending maritime security. The project needs long-term financial and strategic plans because the submarines take years to build.
"As the prime minister and defence minister, I ask for everyone's understanding and the issue should not be used to spur conflict," Gen Prayut said.
Chada Thaiset, a Bhumjaithai Party MP for Uthai Thani and deputy chairman of the national budget scrutiny committee, said on Thursday the party has not decided whether to support the subs budget for next year being kept intact, trimmed or suspended.
Earlier six committee members from the Democrat Party said they disagreed with the navy spending its funds on the submarines this year citing the need to mend the Covid 19-battered economy first.
The committee is made up of 72 members, 48 of whom represent coalition parties with the rest from the opposition bloc. The subs budget needs at least 36 votes to pass.
Even if the six Democrats vote against it, the budget would still survive intact. However, if seven Bhumjaithai members join them, the budget would not see the light of day, according to political observers.
The observers warned a vote to support the budget might prevail in the main House committee but it would likely pile more political pressure on the government from pro-democracy protesters who would have one more issue to attack the administration with.
Mr Chada said the navy should listen to people and keep an open mind.
A source in Bhumjaithai said the party stood in favour of following through with the legal process that governs the procurement project.
"We shouldn't let ourselves be swayed by public sentiment. We should stick to the law," the source said.