BANGKOK — Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan on Monday said he was not involved in Parliament’s decision to approve the procurement of two additional Chinese-made submarines amid economic woes caused by the coronavirus.
Gen. Prawit also insisted that the acquisition would proceed as planned, despite Pheu Thai Party’s claim that the contract is illegitimate since the current navy commander Luechai Ruddit had no authority to make a government-to-government agreement with China.
“How could I possibly lobby them? It’s a matter of the committee,” Prawit said. “It’s not invalid because the contract is already signed. Please wait for the navy to clarify it this afternoon.”
At a news conference on Monday afternoon, navy spokesman Prachachart Sirisawat said the situation in the South China Sea has proven that a strong naval might is necessary to safeguard national interests.
“If we don’t have a powerful might, will we be able to negotiate for our national interests?”
Thailand first signed the contract to buy three submarines from China in a “3 subs at the price for 2” deal in 2017, with the total budget declared at 36 billion baht. An installment of 13.5 billion baht was already reportedly made for the first sub, which is expected to be delivered in 2023.
The controversial deal resurfaced on Saturday after the House’s subcommittee on financial scrutiny voted to approve the 22-billion baht payment for the second portion of the contract, which covers the two additional subs.
The 8-member panel voted 4:4 over the procurement, prompting the panel’s chairman, Supol Fongngam of the Phalang Pracharat Party, to cast the decisive vote in support of the purchase. Supol said the panel had to approve the plan for the navy to hold its obligation they made with the Chinese government.
“It’s important to maintain international relations,” Supol said. “China is our No. 1 trading partner, so it’s important to honor the commitments we made with each other.”
He also said that submarines are necessary in maintaining national security, and some of Thailand’s neighboring countries already have them in service.
“Submarines are purchased to leverage the power over the disputed waters,” Supol said. “They’re for other countries to respect us.”
But in a Sunday news conference at the Pheu Thai Party, MP Yutthapong Charassathian said an influential general with the initial “P” pressured Supol to cast the final vote during the meeting.
Yutthapong, who also serves as Supol’s deputy chairman in the panel, also showed the procurement document to the media and said that it was not a government-to-government contract, or G2G. Instead, the deal was only a non-binding agreement with a Chinese shipbuilding company, the lawmaker said.
“It’s not a G2G agreement, but it’s just a normal agreement,” Yutthapong said. “Moreover, it only involved one submarine and there’s no obligation to buy three submarines. If it’s actually a G2G agreement, then Adm. Luechai has no authority to sign in the name of the Thai government because it belongs to the prime minister or the foreign minister’s power.”
Defense ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich denied the allegations and said that the armed force has no power to intervene in the legislation, though he deferred inquiries over the alleged invalid contract to the navy.
“It’s not true,” Lt. Gen. Kongcheep said. “The documents shown by Yutthapong is a classified document, so you should ask the navy for that information.”
Speaking at today’s news conference, Capt. Tadawut Tadpitakkul, assistant secretary for the submarine procurement project, said the force was given full authority by the government to sign the agreement with China.