THE recent agreement with the Philippines to supply BrahMos missiles indicates India’s emergence as an important player in the Indo-Pacific. India is positioned as a security provider in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), having worked with Mauritius and the Seychelles to strengthen their capabilities. There were similar efforts involving countries such as Mozambique in the Western IOR. On the eastern side, ASEAN countries have issues with China in the South China Sea (SCS). They are losing control over outlying islands and atolls, and facing growing incursions by Chinese fishing fleets, supported by the Chinese Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is strengthened by a 2021 law which allows it to take lethal action in defence of the waters claimed.
While Malaysia and Brunei have adopted a low-key approach in dealing with China on the issue of disputed islands, Vietnam and the Philippines have suffered. Indonesia is feeling the heat as Chinese incursions into its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Natuna Sea have increased.
India has maritime security cooperation with six ASEAN countries and a strategic partnership with ASEAN as a whole. However, neither ASEAN nor India was keen on developing an anti-Chinese position. With this clarity, cooperation continued, but lacked depth.
India provided a submarine from its fleet to Myanmar in 2020. It was for Myanmar’s defence in the Bay of Bengal. India was guided by ‘SAGAR’ or ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ and its commitment to building capacities in neighbouring countries.
Myanmar is not a contender with China in the SCS. It is Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines who wish to procure Indian missiles for the defence of their coastline. Through proven BrahMos and Akash, India fitted the bill. For several years, Vietnamese and Indonesian interest was not matched by Indian enthusiasm.
The requirement of fulfilling domestic orders came first. Now, with the determined push to achieve defence exports of $5 billion, the BrahMos is in the market. The Philippines became its unexpected first customer. Vietnam and Indonesia, who remain interested are waiting in the wings; among the potential buyers are South Africa. Kenya, the UAE and Oman. None of them in the Western IOR are seen in the anti-Chinese mould.
This aspect is important. For several years, India demurred in responding to Vietnamese and Indonesian requests for missiles, perhaps because it was cautious about the Chinese reaction. The Chinese aggression in Ladakh in 2020 and their disregard for extant agreements pertaining to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) reduced India’s inhibitions in working with other countries in their national interest.
The ASEAN countries understood that Chinese dominance in the region, achieved through control over the SCS and avoiding progress on the Code of Conduct, curbed their strategic autonomy. Despite Chinese largesse in dealing with the pandemic and BRI support to many ASEAN countries, some of them who are at loggerheads with China in the SCS feel threatened. In the past, the US was the net provider of security, but with its departure, the region was left in a quandary.
Now, as the Quad has visible participation in the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN countries believe that their strategic autonomy allows them to engage beyond China. The only thing they want to avoid is Sino-US rivalry. Therefore, buying defence equipment from India or Japan is considered a safer bet. The Philippines obtained patrol boats from Japan, as did Vietnam; the Philippines’ main equipment is of US origin since it was a US treaty partner and it is still ordering more American equipment. India has found the right niche as neither the US nor Japan have missiles which they will provide to ASEAN countries.
Undoubtedly, the role played by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to develop BrahMos, a 292-km-range cruise missile and the best in its class at present, gives India an edge. Newer versions of the BrahMos under testing will increase the range and the speed and take it from a supersonic 2.8 Mach to a hypersonic 5 Mach.
Some ASEAN countries remain interested in the shore-based anti-ship version to defend their coastlines. They do not have the capacity to absorb ship-based, submarine-launched or aircraft-delivered BrahMos; hence, the original BrahMos created by India remains the default option for export.
The then President APJ Abdul Kalam had said that Indian diplomacy and technology had come together to create the Pan-African e-network project for telemedicine and tele-education in Africa. Separately, it had come together with Russia to produce BrahMos. Subsequently, a third diplomatic success was when India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2016 which allowed it to develop missiles up to 300-km range and export them in a responsible manner.
Military diplomacy facilitated the Philippines breakthrough. For consistent exports, BrahMos needs to deal with three aspects and hope that circumstances would not deter it. The cost at about $2.75 million for a battery is considered high. India compensates by offering a sovereign-backed line of credit (LOC) for defence exports. However, none of the three ASEAN countries availed of the LOC and have preferred their own budgetary funding, often leading to delays in orders. India should relook the terms of the LOC to make them supportive of exports.
BrahMos is the result of a partnership with Russia. It appears that the issues between partners DRDO and Russian rocket design bureau NPO Mashinostroyeniya have been resolved, clearing the path for exports. However, US CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions can imperil export efforts. The NPO Mashinostroyeniya is a target of CAATSA. The US ought to see that a Quad partner is assisting countries threatened by China and look at the bigger picture rather than its domestic legislation.
Thirdly, the Sino-Russian axis is growing strategically stronger in Northeast Asia, a part of the Indo-Pacific. Though Russia is not active in the South China Sea, it is supportive of Chinese objectives in the region.
The Chinese have so far not reacted to the sale of BrahMos to the Philippines. Caution is advised in dealing with the Russian approach to the export of BrahMos to countries whose main threat is from China. This is another task for Indian diplomacy to manage in a rapidly changing scenario.
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