A model of the S26T submarine on display. Photo: Handout

State-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) announced this week that it had started building a Type S26T submarine, a modified export variant of the indigenous Type 041 diesel-electric version, for the Royal Thai Navy.

In July 2015, Thailand selected China’s Yuan-class (Type 041) platform to meet a requirement for three submarines, after its procurement committee voted unanimously in favor of the offerings from China.

A funding plan for 13 billion baht (US$400 million) for the first China-built sub was approved.

In May 2017, Bangkok and Beijing struck a deal for one S26T variant of the submarine in a $390 million purchase agreement that also included, among other things, an option to buy two extra such subs.

The Bangkok Post reported back then that the S26T had a submerged displacement of 2,600 tons and was equipped with an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system.

A submarine base will need to be set up at Thailand’s Sattahip Navy Base, near the U-Tapao airbase, to accommodate the new vessels. The submarine may alternatively be berthed at a Thai naval facility at the southern province of Phang Nga facing the Andaman Sea.

Other big-ticket purchases from Thailand include a deal to buy 28 VT-4 tanks from China North Industries Group Corp (Norinco), with the option to secure many more in the future.

The Pakistan Navy has also signed a deal for eight similar subs, four to be built at the CSIC’s Wuhan Shipyard and the rest assembled in Pakistan with a technology transfer from China.

An earlier report by the People’s Daily said China could share some of its submarine technologies, particularly in propulsion and armament, with de facto allies such as Pakistan.

The Type 041 series, the prototype of the two export versions for Thailand and Pakistan, is China’s first AIP-powered submarine and presumed to be one of the quietest diesel-electric classes in service thanks to its anechoic tiles and asymmetrical seven-blade skewed propeller.

CSIC also started building four littoral mission ships for the Royal Malaysian Navy in July. The 68.2-meter, 680-ton vessels will be used for maritime patrols, coastal security and search and rescue operations.

China has exported 13 different types of surface warships to seven countries, including Egypt, Thailand, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Norinco said on its WeChat account.

Analysts say that with Pakistan and Thailand in place, China is making headway in its submarine export program. While competitive pricing is an obvious draw, Thailand had the option of pursuing Western or Western-influenced designs, for example, from South Korea.

Sufficient performance at a comparatively low price would give CSIC a key commercial advantage against the more expensive Western submarine models. If the company has indeed achieved that market position, it could see considerable long-term growth in overseas sales, especially in South and Southeast Asia.

Read more: Southeast Asian nations on a spree buying Chinese weapons

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