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Foreign Policy

The BrahMos Deal: India Pivots to ASEAN With an Eye on China

Feb 26, 2022

After years of quiet negotiations, India finalized the much-ballyhooed deal to sell US$375 million worth of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile to the Philippines. The landmark agreement, which enjoyed widespread coverage by international media, represented New Delhi’s first major arms export deal under its so-called “Act East” policy, as the South Asian powerhouse seeks to expand its influence across the Asia-Pacific region. 

Philippine defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who oversaw the negotiations with India and signed the final contract with BrahMos Aerospace chief Atul Dinkar Ran, hailed the agreement as a “deterrence against any attempt to undermine our sovereignty and sovereign rights, especially in the West Philippine Sea,” referring to Philippine-claimed islands and waters in the southeastern portions of the South China Sea basin.  

Over Twitter, India’s Ambassador to Manila, Shambhu Kumaran, characterized the deal as a crucial step towards “elevating ties between our democracies to a strategic partnership and our shared objective of a free & peaceful Indo-Pacific,” he tweeted. Highly versatile, the BrahMos supersonic missile system can be deployed from warships, submarines and fighter jets. Equipped with Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) and a Global Positioning System (GPS), the Brahmos has a 290-kilometer range with a top Mach-3 speed. 

Though none of the two countries mentioned China, both India and the Philippines are expected to deploy the much-vaunted missile system to their disputed boundaries with the Asian superpower, namely in the Himalayas and the South China Sea, respectively. But given the sophistication of China’s missile defense systems, and its burgeoning hypersonic missile capability, the BrahMos deal alone is unlikely to significantly shift the balance of forces in the region. Its true significance, however, is the potential unlocking of more consequential defense deals in the future, reflecting India’s growing industrial-military complex as well as its steady pivot to Southeast Asia with an eye on a rising China. 

The Elephant in the Room 

Despite its large pool of human capital and sizable economy, India has largely been an import-dependent military power. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India alone was responsible for a tenth of global arms imports between 2016 and 2020, making it the world’s largest arms importer. Surrounded by rivals to both the east and the west, India has been on a shopping spree for state-of-the-art weapons systems from a wide range of suppliers, including Russia and France. 

In the past, India also reconsidered arms exports, including the potential sale of Prithvi surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missile to Vietnam, in order to avoid any potential diplomatic tensions with China. For the same reason, New Delhi also snubbed overtures by the United States and Japan to be part of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) alliance in the Indo-Pacific. 

Under the nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi, however, India has shed its strategic reticence, rolled back its ‘non-aligned’ foreign policy tradition, and sought to lessen its dependence on arms imports in favor of developing the country’s burgeoning defense industry. Thus, New Delhi has gradually reduced its imports in recent years and expanded joint ventures with like-minded powers. The Modi administration aims to increase its defense exports to $5 billion by 2024, as the South Asian country positions itself as a potential global supplier of sophisticated yet affordable military hardware. 

To this end, India has stepped up its international diplomacy. In 2018, India became only the second power to host a bilateral summit with all the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The mega-event, which was hailed as “the most significant exposition of its ‘Act East’ policy” by the local media, saw Modi and his ten counterparts from across Southeast Asia celebrating India’s 69th Republic Day parade. 

The commemorative summit, based on the theme “Shared values, Common Destiny,” marked India’s debut as a major force in the Indo-Pacific, with New Delhi exploring multi-billion-dollar economic and defense deals with Southeast Asian countries. Crucially, India and ASEAN heads of state also focused on maritime security cooperation, culminating in the  “Delhi Declaration,” which emphasized the two sides shared interest in “maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, and other lawful uses of the seas.” 

The South China Sea disputes, in particular, were reportedly discussed during an off-the-record ‘retreat’ among the heads of state. Not long after, India began to also expand its naval deployments across the region. Last year, for instance, the South Asian powerhouse deployed a naval contingent to the South China Sea, which saw Indian warships making goodwill port calls at as well as conducting joint naval exercises with Australia (AUS-INDEX), Indonesia (Samudra Shakti), Singapore (SIMBEX), as well as the Philippines and Vietnam. 

New Customers 

Thanks to its proactive diplomacy, India managed to secure potential customers for its prized weapons systems, most especially the BrahMos supersonic missile. Fortuitously, New Delhi’s defense diplomacy has coincided with a steady arms build-up across Southeast Asia, especially amid rising superpower rivalry in the broader region. 

Although the Philippines recently trimmed its defense spending amid the COVID-19 pandemic slowdown, it has been engaged in a decade-long defense build-up. Following the passage of the Revised AFP Modernization Act in 2012, the Southeast Asian country embarked on a multi-phased, multi-billion-dollar military procurement drive, with a particular focus on enhancing the naval and airforce capabilities. 

Though the Philippines is in no position to match the capabilities of major powers such as China, its ultimate goal is to develop a ‘minimum deterrence’ and domain awareness capability across its vast waters from the South China Sea to the Western Pacific. By purchasing several batteries of BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, which will be deployed by the newly-created Philippine Marines’ Coastal Defense Regiment, the Southeast Asian country hopes to enhance its strategic deterrence in near waters. 

A whole of contested land features in the South China Sea, including the Mischief Reef (217 kilometers from nearest Philippine shores) and Scarborough Shoal (222 kilometers from nearest Philippine shores) fall within the range of BrahMos. As the Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana bluntly put it, “Equipping our navy with this vital asset is imperative as the Philippines continues to protect the integrity of its territory and defend its national interests.” 

China, however, has installed upgraded HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles across its occupied islands in the area. Its warships are also equipped with state-of-the-art HHQ-9B missile systems. Thus, the recent Philippine-India defense deal is unlikely to dramatically alter the military balance in the area in the short-run. Its significance, however, lies in the future. 

As BrahMos Aerospace chief Atul Dinkar Rane admitted, the landmark deal with the Philippines

“paves the way for many more to come”, since the “deal opens the doors for all defense equipment [made] in India, not just the BrahMos but all the other systems which we are making.” In particular, the Philippines will soon be in a better position to purchase next-generation systems, including the highly-anticipated Brahmos II hypersonic missile, which boasts a vastly improved speed and range compared to its predecessors. 

Moreover, the deal with the Philippines serves as an ice-breaker for similar, if not larger, defense export packages with neighboring Indonesia, which is now in the midst of a whopping $125 billion military modernization program, as well as Vietnam, which is already a major customer of Russian weaponries and is negotiating purchase of Akash surface-to-air missiles as well as patrol vessels from India. In short, we may be just witnessing the beginning of a new era of Indian defense diplomacy and strategic influence, especially in Southeast Asia, where there is huge appetite for affordable and sophisticated weapons systems. 

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