A reflection of the failed BrahMos deal

Although India has been wary about antagonising China, the nation has warmed up to Vietnam.

By John Pennington, Edited by Isabel Yeo

Reports that Vietnam would soon receive a batch of BrahMos supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles from India appear to be misguided. Despite Vietnam’s initial admission, both sides have since denied the sale. India was particularly vehement in its denial.

“They (Vietnam) had clarified that their spokesperson did not confirm the sale of BrahMos but referred to defence and strategic cooperation between the two countries,” an External Affairs Ministry spokesman said. Indian media reported that the deal had broken down and Vietnam was negotiating directly with Russia instead.

India knows it is treading a fine line with China

India’s refusal to confirm the sale suggests a reluctance to anger Beijing and further heighten tensions between the two nations. Its relations with China are already at a low point, and it needs to be strategic about its actions in the region.

China’s continued support for Pakistan, India’s rival, remains a sore spot in Sino-India relations. India’s decision to press on with gas exploration and conduct naval drills in the South China Sea has also earned Beijing’s wrath.

Sources: India Today, Hindustan Times, India Times, Indian Defence Review, South China Morning Post, Reuters, Times of India

The recent Doklam standoff along the disputed Indian-Chinese border further increased tensions. Although both sides have since stood their forces down, tensions are still simmering.

India could yet go further. The country may even add to its existing trilateral relationship with US and Japan by creating a similar relationship with Japan and Vietnam.

Any deal will further strain China’s relationship with Vietnam

Vietnam has been increasingly critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea, and both sides have engaged in frequent clashes. Despite an ASEAN communique suggesting that all was well, relations between both countries are extremely strained. A successful BrahMos deal will worsen relations.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Daily warned, “the deployment of BrahMos missile is bound to increase the competition and antagonism in the China-India relations and will have an adverse impact on the stability of the region.”

However, it is unlikely that tensions will escalate to the point of war. When China threatened military action in June in response to Vietnamese moves in the South China Sea, Hanoi quickly backed down. Vietnam knows that it is not China’s military equal and China would be wise not invite greater international intervention if it is too aggressive. Both sides should give diplomacy every chance.

Vietnam will remain at the heart of India’s ASEAN strategy

While India remains concerned over its worsening relations with China, it is unlikely to back off from supporting Vietnam. Modi’s “Act East” strategy identifies Vietnam as its East Asian “cornerstone”. He wants to build relationships with countries that can put pressure on China. The goal is for India to take on a greater role in the development of the region.

Before the reported BrahMos sale, India had already given Vietnam credit to buy weapons, trained Vietnamese pilots and naval personnel and sold it surface-to-air missiles.

As well as helping Vietnam strengthen its military capabilities, the two countries have signed multiple agreements as part of their comprehensive strategic partnership. These include pledges to boost aviation links, energy efficiency, and political cooperation.

Under the Vietnam-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, India has already made deals to supply Vietnam with ships and share training resources. The two countries also agreed to promote oil expansion in the South China Sea.

Source: Vietnam Economic News

Vietnam and the rest of ASEAN will benefit from a more involved India

While some ASEAN nations, like the Philippines, have pushed for Chinese investment at the expense of its South China Sea claims, Vietnam is not one of them. If it wishes to stand up to China, it needs others to stand with it. In India, Vietnam has an ally which can and will stand up to China.

The resolution of the Doklam saga may further embolden Vietnam to stand up to Chinese aggression. India came to Bhutan’s aid and eventually Beijing agreed to pull back their troops. China will not always get its way with India around.

“The Doklam saga will encourage countries like Vietnam, Mongolia, Singapore and Japan that have been pushing back at China, and cause others like the Philippines, who looked as if they might cave in, to reconsider,” wrote Times Of India columnist Rajeev Deshpande.

Other ASEAN nations have also found a friend in India. It has helped Myanmar and Thailand develop their transport infrastructure. In 2016, the Indian government approved a project development fund to “catalyse Indian economic presence” in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. India also actively participates in regional forums, including those concerned with defence and security. These links are good for the region. They create a more stable balance of power which is less tilted towards one country’s favour.

These closer ties would also benefit India. It wants to become a stronger global power and wants to keep China in check in the region. India cannot do that alone, so it needs to build alliances with nations in Southeast Asia. It has been facing criticism for not acting on its plans to play a greater role in Southeast Asia. In arming, training, and supporting China’s neighbours, India may build its image as a credible counterweight to China.

Closer India-ASEAN ties are beneficial in the face of a more assertive China and a hands-off America, though this will likely come at the price of heightening tensions in the short-term.