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Thai Military Suspends Deals on Foreign Weapons while Nation Battles COVID-19

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Bangkok
2020-04-22
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Thai soldiers man a Stryker during a turnover ceremony of several infantry-fighting vehicles at the Thai Army Headquarters in Bangkok, Sept. 12, 2019.
Thai soldiers man a Stryker during a turnover ceremony of several infantry-fighting vehicles at the Thai Army Headquarters in Bangkok, Sept. 12, 2019.
Pimuk Rakkanam/BenarNews

Thailand has suspended the purchase of military hardware from three countries to pool government money into battling the coronavirus pandemic, the Thai military said Wednesday.

The procurement suspensions include two Chinese-built submarines, two South Korean-made jet trainers and army hardware from China and the United States, officials said. The move accorded with the government’s directive for state agencies to save funds for the nation’s COVID-19 fight, officials said.

“In a broad view, seven units under the defense ministry slashed 18 billion baht (U.S. $555 million) from the budget,” Col. Winthai Suwaree, the army spokesman, said Wednesday. “That’s a relatively high slash compared to other ministries.”

Meanwhile, the Thai Navy said it had also placed on hold its plans to purchase two more S-26T submarines from China. The Thai government had earlier approved the purchase of three Chinese subs worth 36 billion baht (U.S. $1.1 billion).

“We put the purchase of the second and third submarines on hold,” Navy spokesman Rear Adm. Prachachart Sirisawat told BenarNews on Wednesday. “We delay it until we have money from fiscal year 2021.”

Bangkok had allocated 233 billion baht (U.S. $7.2 billion) for its security spending for fiscal year 2020, even though the International Monetary Fund had forecast that the growth rate for Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy would slow to 3 percent this year.

But the coronavirus pandemic struck, forcing Bangkok to impose a partial national lockdown to rein in potentially deadly infections from the virus.

Thailand declared an emergency last month, giving the government enforcement powers not normally available to it, including deployment of military forces for enforcement of curfews and dispersing of gatherings. Governors of several provinces have also imposed controls on people’s movements.

Thai health authorities on Wednesday reported 15 new coronavirus infections and one fatality, taking its cumulative cases to 2,826 with a death toll of 49.

Stryker deal going ahead

Winthai explained that military deals that require one-time payments could be scrapped, while procurements that would be paid over several fiscal years may be postponed in the meantime.

He said the Army’s planned 26 major projects, including procurement of new tanks, howitzers and radars had been discarded.

Winthai said, however, that the purchase of a second lot of 50 units of refurbished Stryker infantry fighting vehicles from the United States would proceed as planned.

“This is in line with the category of tie-over purchase,” he said, adding that the deal was worth 4.5 billion baht (U.S. $139 million), with payments tied over three fiscal years.

The deal includes tactical training, spare parts, logistics and foreign education for Thai soldiers, he said.

In July last year, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of 60 Strykers to Thailand in a deal worth $175 million, a Pentagon statement said. Shortly after, Thailand ordered 10 more, Thai military officials said.

The United States froze $4.7 million of security-related aid and cancelled security agreements with Thailand in 2014, when Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, then the army chief, led a bloodless putsch that deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Washington’s move was a consequence of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, a law that bars American security forces from cooperating with nations where an elected government has been toppled through a coup.

But military ties improved after civilian rule was officially restored last year through the Thai general election, which critics said was engineered to keep Prayuth in power.

Military acquisitions from China

Prachachart, the Navy spokesman, said the construction of a submarine pier and its maintenance facilities were also delayed after the navy lost about 4.1 billion baht (U.S. $127 million) in budget cuts.

The Thai junta approved the budget for the first submarine from China in January 2017 after putting the purchase on hold the previous year as a result of public criticism.

Thailand recently completed a deal it struck with China for about 50 VT-4 main battle tanks, which were aimed at replacing the military’s Vietnam War-era M41 light tanks from the United States.

Thailand received 10 VT-4 main battle tanks and 38 VN-1 armored personnel carriers, among other military equipment, from China in December last year. The military hardware arrived at a port in Chonburi province, southeast of Bangkok, officials told BenarNews.

The battle tanks from Beijing were among weapons and vehicles ordered in 2016 by the Thai junta from NORINCO, China’s defense corporation, Army officials said. The deal was worth about 7 billion baht (U.S. $216 million).

Thailand took delivery of the defense equipment from Beijing as the United States ratcheted up its focus on incentivizing weapons exports to its allies under a new policy aimed at pulling countries under its sphere of influence through long-term arms deals, according to officials and analysts.

As part of its program called Foreign Military Financing, Washington also provides some countries with grants and loans that can be used to purchase defense equipment from U.S. manufacturers. Those grants are separate from arms sales in which the importing country would use its own money to acquire the weapons.

Thailand also planned to acquire from the United States eight Boeing AH-6i attack helicopters and related hardware in a deal worth $400 million. The U.S. State Department approved the sale on Sept. 24 last year.

Air Chief Marshal Manat Wongwat told reporters on Wednesday that the Air Force also slashed its budget by more than 20 percent by halting the purchase of two T-50 advanced jets from South Korea. That deal was worth more than 2.4 billion baht (U.S. $74 million).

Thailand’s Chamber of Commerce said seven million Thais lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Central bank officials had anticipated a negative growth, a GDP of -5.3 percent this year.

Globally, more than 2.6 million infections from the coronavirus have been recorded while the death toll stood at more than 180,700 as of Wednesday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

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