A Chinese-made VT-4 battle tank is seen on display. The Thai army has just received the first batch of 49 such tanks that were part of a US$148-million deal. Photo: Xinhua
A Chinese-made VT-4 battle tank is seen on display. The Thai army has just received the first batch of 49 such tanks that were part of a US$148-million deal. Photo: Xinhua

Barges carrying made-in-China tanks have been plying Thai waterways and ports this month, after 28 VT-4 battle tanks were delivered to the Royal Thai Army, according to media reports in both countries.

In 2016, state-owned heavy machinery maker China North Industries Corp (Norinco) undercut its Ukrainian, Russian and Singaporean competitors to bag a 4.9-billion-baht (US$148-million) order for 49 tanks, with the military government in Bangkok keen to replace its ageing US-made M41 Walker Bulldog reconnaissance light tanks that have been in service since World War II.

Delivery of the first batch of Chinese tanks came last week, six months ahead of the schedule.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was quoted as saying the merit of the Chinese tanks was more than just the price.

The Chinese military and Norinco will also invest in a maintenance and training center in Thailand that will manufacture parts for tanks and armored vehicles, Bangkok-based Voice TV reported.

Previously, the Thai military had been a long-time buyer of Ukrainian tanks. But as the Bangkok Post revealed, Kiev only managed to deliver 10 T-84s over the past three years rather than a full battalion – due to the East European nation’s economic difficulties.

Last year, the government led by coup-leader Gen Prayut Chan-ocha agreed to buy three submarines made in China for just over US$1 billion.

The deal to buy three Yuan-class subs spurred a lot of criticism and debate. But Thailand is not the only nation in the region that finds Chinese arms and weaponry a good bargain.

A year ago, Malaysia also went on a shopping spree, buying 18 coastal defense frigates during a state visit to Beijing by Prime Minister Najib Razak. Najib reportedly gave his Chinese counterpart a “wish list” of military equipment, and a deal was subsequently agreed on in April between China Shipbuilding Industry Corp and the Malaysian navy, for the latter to build ships at its own shipyards with a transfer of Chinese technology.

These deals come at a time when many countries in the ASEAN region are concerned about Beijing’s claims to islands in the South China Sea. Singapore, which has military cooperation with Taiwan, was allegedly none-too-pleased about the high-profile sale of military vessels to Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Jakarta also inked a deal last year for China-made radar and command systems. China is also the largest weapons supplier for Myanmar, providing a whole range of arms and ammunition, from fighters to missiles.

And when the US Congress barred the sale of 26,000 M4 carbines to the Philippines last year – as a protest against President Rodrigo Duterte’s “murderous” war against drugs, Beijing saw a chance to provide rifles for the Filipinos’ law enforcers.

US companies still rake in cash from arms sales to East Asia and Southeast Asia – mainly to longstanding regional allies such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.

But other nations with fledging domestic defense industries share a common desire to source their military hardware from elsewhere, either for cost-performance or leverage when negotiating with Washington. And that has opened doors in the region for Chinese suppliers.