Beijing becoming a major weapons supplier in Southeast Asia

China won a US$ 148 million contract to supply the Thai military with 49 tanks. Malaysia has bought 18 frigates for coastal defense. Indonesia has obtained Chinese-made radar and command systems. China is Myanmar’s largest arms supplier.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/AsiaTimes) – More and more countries in Southeast Asia are turning to China to replenish their military equipment, including Thailand, which has signed a deal to buy tanks, and Malaysia, which is interested in Chinese-made frigates.

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 the two countries.

Thailand’s military government is keen to replace its ageing US-made M41 Walker Bulldog reconnaissance light tanks that have been in service since World War II.

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

The Thai military had been a long-time buyer of Ukrainian tanks. But, Kyiv only managed to deliver ten T-84s over the past three years rather than a full battalion – due to the East European nation’s economic woes.

Last year, the government led by coup leader General Prayut Chan-ocha also agreed to buy three Chinese-made Yuan-class submarines for just over US$ 1 billion, sparking a lot of criticism and debate at home.

Thailand however is not the only nation in the region interested in Chinese arms and weaponry. A year ago, Malaysia went on a shopping spree, buying 18 coastal defense frigates during a state visit to Beijing by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

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.

Similarly, Indonesia also inked a deal last year for Chinese-made radar and command systems. China is also the largest weapons supplier for Myanmar.

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 violent war against drugs, Beijing saw a chance to provide rifles to the Philippines.

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 this has opened doors in the region for Chinese suppliers.