China has gained a higher profile in the Southeast Asian weapons market with the announcement of two pending arms deals with Thailand.
Lt. Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, deputy chief of staff, said recently that the Thai army has agreed to buy 400 armored personnel carriers. A deal for at least 50 Chinese tanks was disclosed earlier. Thailand is pursuing a program to mechanize its ground forces.
"These two types of military vehicles will be sold to us at 'friendship' prices, and the payment will be made in installments with a generous grace period," Suchinda said. One Thai press report said that Thailand may pay for the tanks with agricultural products. Suchinda did not disclose a price.
So far, none of Thailand's non-Communist allies in the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has publicly commented on Bangkok's weapons deals with Beijing. But at least two ASEAN members, Malaysia and Indonesia, which both have important Chinese minorities, are wary of Beijing's intentions in the region.
Chinese weapons sales usually make a political point. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, Beijing positioned itself as leader of the Third World, arming a number of newly independent countries. In Southeast Asia, the Chinese had limited their arms shipments to Communist insurgents in Malaysia and Thailand, and to Hanoi until their break with the Vietnamese in the late 1970s. In the last few years, until their arms relationship with the Thais began to blossom, Chinese weapons shipments in the region went almost exclusively to guerrillas opposing Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, Western military experts here say.
There is an anti-Vietnamese political message in the Thai sales, they say. Border fighting between the Chinese and Vietnamese flared in January, and Thai troops reguarly exchange fire, and sometimes clash, with Soviet-armed Vietnamese on Thailand's Cambodian border.
For the past two weeks, Thai forces have been trying to oust Vietnamese infantry from two hills inside the Thai border. Casualties in double figures have been reported on both sides.
The Thai-Chinese military relationship began in 1979, after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, formerly ruled by Beijing's ruthless Khmer Rouge allies. Thai military commanders have visited China four times since 1981.
In January, the Chinese armed forces chief, Gen. Yang Dezhi, repaid the visits, coming to Bangkok for talks with military leaders here. The offer to sell tanks to the Thais came during that visit, according to Bangkok press reports.
Suchinda, the army deputy chief of staff, said the deal involves the Chinese T-69 tank. The T-69 is a modified version of the Korean War-vintage Soviet T-54, but with a far better fire-control system, a Western military attache here said.
About the same time that the Chinese deal was disclosed, the Pentagon announced in Washington that it was planning to sell the Thais 40 M-48 tanks, also a vintage model but modified for export. Military experts here said that the American tank is heavier and has greater firepower, but because of its weight might not be as maneuverable in the often boggy rice lands that cover much of Thailand.
Furthermore, the cost of the M-48 deal, still to be approved by Congress, is $47 million, including spares and ammunition, or more than $1 million a tank. Suchinda was quoted as saying that the Thais may get the Chinese T-69 for 10 cents on the dollar, or for as little as $50,000 a tank. One Western source, however, estimated that the price would be closer to about half the M-48's, or $500,000.
Two weeks after the Chinese tank deal was disclosed, Suchinda revealed the Thai commitment to buy the 400 armored personnel carriers from Beijing.
Despite the Chinese sales, Thailand's military remains overwhelmingly U.S.-supplied, to a greater degree than any of its Southeast Asian neighbors except the Philippines. In 1985, the Thais agreed to buy 12 F-16 fighter-bombers from the United States, a $318-million deal. The planes are to arrive here next year.
In January, the Thai military entered into an agreement with Washington for a jointly controlled $100-million weapons stockpile here for Thai use in emergencies.
A Mix of Suppliers
The other ASEAN members--Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei--have a greater mix of suppliers, mainly American but also including British, French and Italian. West Germany has been the major arms merchant to Burma, and the Communist countries of Indochina--Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos--are almost exclusively armed by the Soviet Union.
Except for Thailand and the Cambodian guerrillas, China is not active in the Southeast Asian market, nor is it a major world arms dealer. Major recipients of its weaponry have been Pakistan, Tanzania, Iraq and Egypt.
But Beijing, although perhaps preoccupied with domestic struggles, is still an immense political, economic and military presence in Southeast Asia, always closely watched by its southern neighbors.