India and Vietnam: Going beyond Brahmos

As India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar winds up the Singapore leg of his two-nation, south-east Asia sojourn and heads to Hanoi, the oft-repeated talk about India seeking to sale the Brahmos missile to Vietnam is once again making headlines. Only, unlike in the past, there is a distinct possibility that both India and Vietnam will finally bite the bullet.

All indications now point to the fact that New Delhi has overcome its reservations and dare one say, fear about annoying China in supplying the cruise missile to Vietnam. After years of hesitation and obfuscation, South Block is now set to move forward in finalising the sale of Brahmos missiles to Vietnam. Apparently, co-developers of the missiles, the Russians have also agreed to proposal in principle. While the actual delivery is some distance away, the very fact that India is now openly talking about exporting weapons platforms to friendly countries is in itself a paradigm shift. So far, the squeamish Congress-era decision-makers shied away even from talking about such a possibility. Among potential customers for the Brahmos systems are South Africa, Chile and Philippines besides Vietnam.

Defence Minister Parrikar will of course have much more to talk about with his Vietnamese counterpart than just the sale of Brahmos missiles. Singapore, Vietnam besides South Korea and Philippines are important nations that India is reaching out to aggressively in South Asia . As part of the tweaked Act East policy a more robust military-to-military partnership with important nations in south-east Asia is also underway.

Vietnam and India of course have some things in common. To begin with, both have borne the brunt of Chinese aggression — India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979. Both India and Vietnam, who have long-pending territorial disputes with China thus decided to unite against their common adversary,. Although India refuses to directly intervene in the South China Sea dispute, it indirectly supports nations like Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia on the stand that they take with regard to the South China Sea.

Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union, for long a security guarantor for both India and Vietnam in Asia, left New Delhi and Hanoi without an all-weather, all-powerful friend in the 1990s.

Both New Delhi and Hanoi had traditionally sourced majority of their military hardware from the erstwhile Soviet Union. That commonality has meant that both can share expertise and resources available with their respective armed forces in terms of handling and maintaining the Soviet-era weaponry.

India, for instance, has repaired and upgraded over 100 MiG 21 planes of the Vietnamese Air Force and supplied them with enhanced avionics and radar systems. Indian Air Force pilots have also been training their Vietnamese counterparts. The Indian Navy, by far larger than the Vietnamese navy, has been supplying critical spares to Hanoi for its Russian origin ships and missile boats.

High level political visits between India and Vietnam have also been more frequent.  In September 2014, President Pranab Mukherjee was in Vietnam, 24 hours before Chinese President Xi Jingping was due in India. Within a month of Mukherjee’s visit Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was in India within a month to take the bilateral relationship to the next level. Parrikar’s visit is in continuation of that process.

The Defence Minister is accompanied by Defence Secretary, G. Mohan Kumar, C-in-C, Eastern Naval Command, VAdm SCS Bisht, DG Air Operations, Air Mar Anil Khosla and DG, DRDO S. Christopher, besides others. High level visits apart, the Indian Navy has been quite active in its friendly forays in South-East Asia. Meanwhile, a flotilla of Indian warships is on a 75-day deployment to the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

The Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet is ‘Acting East’ with four of its ships en route to the seas east of the Malacca Straits, an area of maritime interest to the Indian Navy. In a press release, India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that the four ships, the INS Satpura, Sahayadri, Shakti and Kirch under the command of the Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet Rear Admiral SV Bhokare had sailed out on 18 May 16 on a 2½ month long operational deployment to the South China and North West Pacific. During this overseas deployment, the ships of Eastern Fleet will make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam), Subic Bay (Philippines), Sasebo (Japan), Busan (South Korea), Vladivostok (Russia) and Port Klang (Malaysia). In addition to showing the Flag in this region of vital strategic importance to India, these ships will also participate in MALABAR-16, a maritime exercise with the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces or the Japanese navy.

Parrikar is expected to reiterate India’s position on freedom of navigation as stated in the Indo-US joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which affirms the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.

The Vision Document, released during President Obama’s India visit in January 2015, also calls on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a position that Vietnam too subscribes to. Beijing may be unhappy with the growing closeness between New Delhi and Hanoi but it can do little on this front except issuing occasional statements. In that sense India’s effort to deepen engagement with Vietnam and goes much beyond just selling a deadly missile to a friendly nation.

Whatever the consequences of this strategy and counter-strategy, one thing is sure: The Indo-Asia-Pacific region is poised to become the new playground for the 21st century version of the Great Game in the years to come.