Thailand has bought the first of three submarines from China in the strongest signal yet the military-ruled country is reducing reliance on its long-time ally, the United States.
A Thai navy admiral signed an agreement for the $US393 million ($530 million) Yuan-class diesel vessel in Beijing even though Thailand’s state audit office is still investigating the purchase.
Thailand’s cabinet, dominated by military officers who seized power in a 2014 coup, approved the deal in secret in April, prompting accusations of a lack of transparency in the country’s largest defence purchase.
The US downgraded defence ties with Thailand after the coup, including reducing participation of its troops in joint military exercises.
But US President Donald Trump last week invited Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to the White House in what analysts interpreted as an attempt by Washington to restore the relationship.
Officials in Washington said Mr Trump needed the help of south-east Asian nations to pressure North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
Mr Prayuth, a former general who led the coup, has repeatedly put off elections that, when eventually held under a new constitution, will protect the military’s influence in civilian affairs.
Critics of the Royal Thai Navy’s $US1.17 billion purchase over 11 years say the government has failed to explain publicly why the vessels are needed for a country surrounded by shallow seas where they will not be able to operate effectively.
They also point out that Thailand faces no apparent threat from any country.
The Bangkok Post said in an editorial that Thailand’s purchase of an aircraft carrier in the early 1990s was plagued by problems and never contributed to the nation’s security.
Jets and helicopters deployed to it were not given an adequate budget to operate.
The newspaper said in an editorial the submarine purchase was opposed by most Thais.
“By pressing on, the government and junta are entirely responsible for everything that follows, quite possibly for years to come,” it said.
Mr Prayuth defended the purchase, saying: “We can’t rely on others to help us.
“It’s like safeguarding your gold. If you have more, you will keep it in a safe place and lock it up … our resources too. We have to safeguard them,” he said.
The submarines will be built by China Shipbuilding and Offshore International, a company authorised by the Chinese government to export military products.
Thailand’s Auditor-General Pisit Leelavachiropas told reporters his office did not prohibit the agreement being signed before its investigations were completed.