As it looks to counter growing Chinese influence in the Southeast Asian nation, Japan is seeking to win a contract to supply Thailand with an air defense radar system built by Mitsubishi Electric Corp., according to four Japanese government officials and one industry source.
The effort is part of a wider push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to bolster its position in the region along with its ally, the United States.
Yoshiyuki Sugiyama, the chief of staff of the Air Self Defense Force, traveled to Bangkok last month to discuss areas of possible cooperation.
Japan expects Thailand’s military government to begin accepting competitive bids as early as next year as it upgrades and adds to its existing U.S. and European radar systems, the sources said. It is unclear who else may be bidding.
The value of such a contract is unclear as the specifications for the system have not yet been released. Radar systems built by Mitsubishi Electric and other companies for Japan can stretch to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the complexity and coverage. The sources said Japan will look to offer a less expensive system because of Thailand’s limited defense budget.
Japan’s push for stronger ties with Thailand will benefit the U.S., given the growing tensions over China’s claims in the South China Sea, according to the sources. Japan, which until 2014 had a ban on arms exports, had not previously sold military equipment to Thailand.
Since the 2014 coup brought the current Thai government to power, the U.S. has had strained relations with its old ally, which served as a staging ground for American forces during the Vietnam War, offering access to strategic airfields and ports.
In July, Thailand agreed to buy three Chinese-built submarines worth around $1 billion in a deal that illustrated Beijing’s willingness to fill the vacuum left by Washington. And last month, Thai and Chinese military planes performed acrobatic demonstrations together at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, about 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Bangkok, as a prelude to the first joint military drill between the nations’ air forces.
A company spokeswoman said Mitsubishi Electric does not discuss individual deals.
“While we are aware that Thailand is moving ahead with the deployment of air defense radar, we can’t comment on the activities of individual corporations,” a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Tokyo said.
Kongcheep Tantravanich, a spokesman for the Thai Defense Ministry, said that “many countries want to sell it to us but we have to see if the system fits.”
Spokesmen for the Royal Thai Navy and the Royal Thai Air Force said they had no knowledge of a plan for a new system.
Washington has a statutory obligation to withhold aid to militaries involved in coups against democratically elected governments. That includes restricting its arms makers from selling military equipment to the country. Japan does not face such restrictions in engaging with the Thai government.
Tokyo is worried that China’s wooing of Thailand could further split members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and blunt criticism of China’s island building in the South China Sea.
Beijing has claimed most of the resource-rich waterway as its own, sparking protests from other claimants, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
The radar Japan proposes for the deal is a variant of Mitsubishi Electric’s fixed-position FSP-3 radar, a older generation of detections systems that has been used by the Self Defense Forces to locate air threats, the sources said.
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