BANGKOK Thailand's cabinet has approved the first of three planned submarine purchases from China worth $393 million, a government spokesman said on Monday.
The plan to buy the three Chinese-built submarines worth 36 billion baht ($1.05 billion) was confirmed in July, signalling warming ties with the regional superpower since relations with the United States cooled after a May 2014 military coup.
The first submarine purchase was approved last week.
"The cabinet approved one submarine purchase on April 18," spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told Reuters, adding that a budget of 13.5 billion baht ($393 million) has been earmarked for the Yuan Class S26T submarine over a six-year period.
The media were not told about the purchase following a cabinet meeting last week because it was a matter of national security, he added.
Public criticism and questions have arisen as to whether Thailand really needs new submarines.
"In the current situation, where the government cannot successfully solve economic problems, buying expensive submarines is completely unnecessary," Watchara Petchthong, a politician with the Democrat Party, told Reuters.
Navy spokesman Admiral Jumpol Loompikanon said the Thai navy owned four Japanese submarines nearly 60 years ago, so new submarines were necessary to protect the country's maritime interests.
"Thai people can rest assured that the navy's submarine spending will be worth it and beneficial to Thailand," Jumpol told Reuters.
Thailand's navy chief, Admiral Na Arreenich, will visit China soon to finalize the government-to-government purchase, a source at the defence ministry, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, told Reuters.
Maritime security is a hot issue in Southeast Asia, given competing claims over the South China Sea, but Thailand is not a claimant in that dispute.
Thailand's defence budget this year is more than 210 billion baht ($6.11 billion), about 9 percent more than the year the military took power.
(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and x)