Does Thailand’s Chinese Submarine Purchase Really Signal U.S. Drift?

Does Thailand’s Chinese Submarine Purchase Really Signal U.S. Drift?
A Royal Thai navy Riverine Patrol Regiment participates in riverine operation exercises during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Thailand 2012, May 19, 2012 (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Aaron Glover).

In late June, the Thai navy told reporters it had elected to buy three submarines from China. The billion-dollar purchase has yet to be officially finalized, and specifics regarding the decision remain murky. While the deal will move Bangkok one step closer to acquiring a capability it has lacked for more than six decades, it has become caught in a broader debate about Thailand’s perceived drift away from the United States and toward China following a coup last year.

Thailand’s submarine quest is neither new nor surprising. The country has lacked a submarine capability since 1951 and has tried since the 1990s to ink submarine deals with several countries, including Germany and South Korea. Supporters of the submarine purchase contend that the country needs them urgently to help advance Thailand’s important maritime interests and keep pace with its neighbors in a cost-effective way.

Many were expecting submarines to once again become a top priority once the ruling military junta took power last year. That has proven to be the case. In July 2014, Thailand launched a multimillion-dollar submarine training center, yet another step in its incremental capacity-building efforts, which had included sending officers abroad to South Korea and Germany for training. Earlier this year, the navy set up a submarine procurement committee to look at potential deals from several countries.

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