Reuters International

Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan gestures during an interview with Reuters at the Defence Ministry in Bangkok, Thailand, February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Military-ruled Thailand will buy three submarines worth around $1 billion from China, the defence minister said on Friday, a move that signals warming ties with the regional superpower as relations with the United States cool.

Thailand's army seized power in a May 2014 coup following months of street protests, toppling the remnants of the civilian government led by Yingluck Shinawatra.

Since then, the military government has sought to improve ties with China which has stepped into the vacuum left by Western governments that have kept the junta at arms length and called for a rapid return to democratic government.

That has come as Beijing and Washington jostle for power and influence in Southeast Asia, where China's disputed maritime claims in the South China Sea have has caused tension in recent years.

The purchase of 36 billion baht (£0.77 billion) worth of Chinese-made submarines next year was confirmed on Friday by Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, after the navy put the plan to the cabinet.

Thailand has never had submarines and has tried, since the 1990s, to sign deals with several countries, including South Korea and Germany.

Thailand put the deal with China on hold a year ago to review the cost and capabilities of the vessels.

Warming ties with China have seen the two countries work towards a massive rail project and holding joint air force exercises.

Thailand's defence spending is set to rise to around 214 billion baht in 2017, up 16.6 percent from 2014.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Simon Webb and Nick Macfie)

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