Thai navy using Malaysia as an excuse to buy submarines, say experts

The Thai navy intends to buy three China-made attack submarines. (File pic)

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia is being made an excuse by Thailand’s navy to push for a purchase of three Chinese submarines, say defence experts.

Lam Choong Wah, a former fellow at the Research for Social Advancement centre, said Malaysia has no major conflict with Thailand regarding a joint development agreement in the Gulf of Thailand and both countries are likely to extend the agreement once it expires.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia lecturer Azmi Hassan says he believes the Thai navy was using Malaysia to justify their submarine purchase as the Covid-19 crisis has hurt the Thai economy and many view defence spending as non-essential.

The two experts were giving their comments on a South China Morning Post report that the Thai navy intended to buy three China-made attack submarines.

The report quoted the head of the Thai navy’s operations department, saying Thailand would have enhanced bargaining power when it starts negotiations with Malaysia on the joint development agreement.

Lam Choong Wah

The agreement is due to expire in 2029, but Lam told FMT that the two countries are likely to extend the agreement. “Malaysia and Thailand share the profits 50:50, which means no party was discriminated against and both are very happy with this arrangement,” Lam said.

“Therefore, there is no reason to replace this good deal with an inferior deal,” he said.

Lam said coercive diplomacy is against Asean principle, and submarine diplomacy would not be used as leverage for the negotiations.

Azmi Hassan

Azmi Hassan “it’s true that every nation with a maritime area needs a submarine as a strategic defence posture, more so that Malaysia owns two, but to do it now is not the right time for Thailand”.

According to the report, Thailand settled on the Chinese submarines after considering offers from Germany, South Korea, Russia, Sweden and France.

Under the terms of the government-to-government deal, a Chinese state-owned shipbuilding conglomerate will build and sell three submarines for the price of two, or 36 billion baht (US$1.16 billion), the report said.

Asked if Malaysia should upgrade its naval fleet, Azmi said: “Not on an ad hoc basis such as to counter Thailand’s new submarines. Now is not the best time to upgrade even with the South China Sea issue.”

Aruna Gopinath, a former lecturer at the National Defence University said Malaysia should look to upgrade its air and sea power. “We cannot be seen to be handling obsolete equipment,” she said.