By SUPALAK GANJANAKHUNDEE
THAILAND definitely needs equipment to build up its military strength - but submarines are not the best solution to achieve this objective since the country currently faces no conventional maritime threat.
Of course many Asean countries – like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – have a number of submarines to protect their territorial waters and even Myanmar plans to acquire some. But, are these neighbours a true maritime threat to Thailand?
Indonesia, which has two type-209 submarines and plans to acquire a dozen in the near future, is not a case for consideration as the country is far away and has no maritime conflict with Thailand. There is no sign or historical record to suggest that Indonesia has any plan to attack Thailand.
Singapore is among countries in the region which has military strength and modern defence equipment. The city-state has two Archer-class and four Challenger-class submarines, but nobody in the Thai Navy or Army imagines that Singapore would become a military threat to Thailand. Singapore conducts military exercises in Thai territory regularly – but Thai people and the elite have never expressed any distrust about them.
Malaysia, which has an overlapping area also claimed by Thailand on the floor of the Gulf of Thailand, has two Scorpene-class submarines. The two countries have had border difficulties in the past due to violence in the deep South, but it is clear to Thai security agencies that Malaysia is not a maritime threat to Thailand. Relations between Thailand and Malaysia are mostly cooperative, rather than conflict.
Among the Thai military elite, Vietnam is seen as having the potential to pose a maritime threat to Thailand due to overlapping territorial areas in the Gulf of Thailand and competition for influence over the region. Historically, Thailand and Vietnam have competed over the Mekong basin for hundreds of years.
But, history has proven for many years that Hanoi has never had any intention to attack Thailand – although it remains distrusted by the Thai elite, notably the military.
It is true that Vietnam is building up its maritime power these days. Hanoi has six Kilo-class submarines, including some yet to be delivered. It is no secret that Vietnam is in the process of acquiring 50 anti-ship and land attack 3M-14E Klub supersonic cruise missiles for its burgeoning fleet of SSK Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines.
However, the Thai elite knows very well that Vietnam built up its maritime strength because of conflict in the South China Sea, based on tension with its giant neighbour China, which has the world’s third largest submarine fleet. Vietnamese submarines cannot be regarded as a threat to Thailand. On the contrary, if Thailand purchased submarines from China, it could pose a challenge to Hanoi since Vietnamese leaders might construe that Thailand would stand with Beijing if they were really in dispute.
On the western coast, India has 15 submarines while immediate neighbour Myanmar has no significant maritime power, let alone submarines. From a security perspective, it is useless for India to pose any threat to Thailand, while New Delhi wants it to be a major bridge to Southeast Asia.
Countries in this region both inside and outside Asean have reached consensus that there will be no major conventional warfare in the near future. Perhaps even half a century from now, countries in the region would not consider waging any wars against each other.
Security threats, if any, in the region at present are non-traditional ones, such as terrorism, piracy, smuggling, trafficking and natural disasters.
It is possible that Thai fishing boats could be sunk by the Indonesian Navy and Coastguard forces, as they illegally fish in the Java and Sumatra seas. Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants are also being trafficked in the Indian Ocean to disembark on the Thai shore. Meanwhile, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Indonesia might create disaster in Thai territorial waters, both in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. All are possible.
The Navy might be commissioned to respond to such threats and need to provide humanitarian assistance for disaster relief. Navy equipment would be utilised for sure, but having submarines for such purposes is not suitable and too expensive.
And to cap it off, a smart navy would never use combat submarines to catch fish.