How India Could Tweak China in the South China Sea

BrahMos Missile, On the Occasion of Republic Day

MUMBAI – When India and Vietnam’s prime ministers held a virtual summit on December 21, the two allied leaders nominally agreed to a joint vision for peace and prosperity against the backdrop of perceived rising Chinese aggression in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
While Narendra Modi and Nguyen Xuan Phuc agreed broadly to enhance defense cooperation, marking the latest boost to their “comprehensive strategic partnership” forged in 2016, the question remains if India will supply Vietnam with the BrahMos missile system, a weapon that could shift the balance of power in the disputed South China Sea.
Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, among others, have sought the ramjet medium-range cruise missile that can be launched from submarines, ships, fighter planes, or land, and is known to be the fastest supersonic cruise missile in the world, to deter Chinese expansionism. India has jointly developed the BrahMos with Russia, its long-time strategic ally.  
The missile can carry up to 300 kilograms of conventional and nuclear warheads and travels at the speed of Mach 2.8, or three times the speed of sound. That means it cannot be intercepted by any known Chinese missile defense system and its precision makes it lethal to most seaborne targets, including China’s aircraft carriers.
To date, India has refrained from shipping the missile to Vietnam for not altogether clear reasons. China has made it crystal clear in state media commentaries and statements it considers delivery of the BrahMos to rival South China Sea claimants a strategic red-line. Beijing has also repeatedly warned New Delhi against inserting itself more directly in the South China Sea disputes
In a 2018 commentary, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said that joint India-Vietnam naval exercises in the South China Sea were a “springboard” for India to “expand influence from the Indian Ocean to the West Pacific.” The mouthpiece publication alleged that India was training Vietnamese pilots to operate Sukhoi Su-30s fighter jets that typically carry and fire BrahMos missiles.
Now, with China and India entrenched in a tense Himalayan border standoff, one that saw at least 20 Indian soldiers killed in a clash in July, New Delhi may finally sell and deliver the BrahMos to Vietnam, both to tweak an adversary and distract Beijing’s strategic attention away from the Himalayas.
Upgraded versions of the BrahMos are also capable of destroying military infrastructure in hidden mountain terrain, a crucial feature as India squares off with China over high altitude contested border territory at Ladakh. For this reason, some military experts have characterized BrahMos’ variant-3 version as “China-centric.”
India has positioned its squadrons of BrahMos-carrying Sukhoi Su-30s at vantage locations in northern India that could strike targets across Pakistan and China amid the Ladakh standoff. India has also increased the frequency at which it test-fires new variants of the BrahMos, presumably to send a cautionary signal to China.
Defense ministry statements in October spoke of having launched the BrahMos from the Indian Navy’s stealth destroyer. In December, the ministry claimed to have destroyed a de-commissioned ship in “highly complex maneuvers and hit Bull’s Eye of the target.’’
That precision makes the BrahMos a red-line sales item to China’s rival claimants in the South China Sea, where Beijing currently has a naval advantage. An estimated 40% of China’s total $4.6 trillion trade passes through the sea, including 80% of its energy imports. China claims nearly 90% of the sea and has ongoing disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Taiwan.
China has particular cause to be concerned about Vietnam adding the BrahMos to its arsenal. In 2019, India upgraded the BrahMos to hit protected targets at pinpoint accuracy at a 650-kilometer range. India and Russia are currently jointly developing to extend its range to 800 kilometers with a vision of an eventual range of 1,500 kilometers.
Vietnam, with 1,650 kilometers of coast facing out on to the South China Sea and 1,300 kilometers of land border with China, would no doubt seek to point the missile in China’s direction. Although BrahMos was designed primarily as an anti-ship missile, it can also engage land-based targets from vertical or inclined launch positions and can cover targets over a 360-degree horizon. 
Six of China’s top cities – Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dongguan and Wuhan – would come within the 1,500-kilometer range of any land base in Vietnam. Shanghai is about 1,900 kilometers from Vietnam’s northernmost military facilities, while Beijing and Tianjin are more than 2,300 kilometers away.
Vietnam already has a $500 million line of credit for defense purchases from India, including potentially the BrahMos. India is currently implementing a $100 million deal for 12 high-speed patrol boats for Vietnam under the line of credit scheme. The boats are reportedly being built for the Vietnam Border Guard to enhance coastal security vis-à-vis China.
Some military experts expected a BrahMos deal would be announced after the virtual meeting between Modi and Phuc, but if there was any progress on the procurement it wasn’t publicly announced. Some diplomats have suggested India might be using the veiled threat of BrahMos sales as a bargaining chip at its ongoing negotiations for China’s withdrawal from Ladakh.
Russia has been more forthright about its intent to sell the BrahMos to allies. Roman Babushkin, deputy chief of mission at Russia’s Embassy in New Delhi, said on November 12 that Russia and India were planning to increase the range of the missile and begin exporting to third countries, starting with the Philippines.
Like Vietnam, the Philippines faces Chinese challenges to territories it claims in the South China Sea. But while Russia may be willing to sell the BrahMos to the Philippines, the procurement was recently postponed reputedly because of budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic but perhaps also because Manila is concerned about how China might react.
Vietnam has been more forthright in complaining about China’s South China Sea actions. Russia’s relations with Vietnam go back decades, as the communist giant backed Vietnam during its war with the United States.
While Moscow’s relations with Beijing are now on an upswing, including in strategic affairs and in tandem against the US, Russia has not shied from supporting allies like India with critical weapons such as the S-400 Triumph air defense missile system, considered the most effective of its type.
India has shared formal relations with Vietnam since setting up a consul general in Hanoi in 1956, which was expanded into a full diplomatic mission in 1972. India stood by Vietnam through its conflict with the US that ended in 1975 and resulted in the unification of North and South Vietnam under communist rule.
Top Indian and Vietnamese ministers have been interacting in recent months as India seeks allies across Asia to neutralize China’s perceived aggression. Defense ministers of the two sides interacted on November 27, as did their foreign ministers on August 25 in preparation for this week’s Modi-Phuc meeting.
Defense Minister Rajnath Singh has openly pledged India’s support in helping Vietnam to upgrade its defense forces. Beyond the BrahMos, Vietnam is also seeking to acquire India’s Akash surface to air missiles and Dhruv helicopters.
Bilateral maritime cooperation has also grown over the years, with Vietnam reportedly granting the Indian Navy rights to use its port in Nha Trang, located close to the strategically significant Cam Ranh Bay, a deep-sea inlet shelter in southern Vietnam.
Some speculate that’s where India would likely first deliver the missile if an agreement on the weapon sale is finally reached.