When news broke this month that India had finally sold its sophisticated BrahMos missile system to Vietnam, the sensitive procurement promised to shift the power balance in the South China Sea, where Vietnam is now jousting with China over contested maritime areas and rights to mineral resources.

The apparent weapons deal came soon after China pressured Vietnam against energy exploration, conducted by a Spanish concessionaire, in the sea and as Indian and Chinese troops squared off over a high mountain road-building project on the Doklam plateau in the Himalayas.

Soon after Vietnam’s state-controlled media reported the sale, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a clarification saying no such agreement had been reached. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a broad statement on improving bilateral defense ties with India via their comprehensive strategic partnership, but didn’t refer specifically to the missile sale in question.

Adding to the intrigue, Vietnamese media reported that Hanoi had not only purchased but already taken delivery of the 6,000-pound supersonic weapons which India jointly produces with Russia. The low-altitude short-range missiles are known to be difficult to shoot down at close range and would put China’s strategic facilities on features it claims in the South China Sea at particular risk.

The timing of the sale would have inevitably been viewed by Beijing as a provocation as the two sides worked towards a resolution of the Doklam standoff. Now that China and India have agreed to ease tensions in an “expeditious disengagement”, a de-escalation announced by both sides on Monday, will the dangled BrahMos missile sale to Vietnam come off the table in a possible unspoken quid pro quo exchange with China ?

India has already delivered to Vietnam its indigenously developed Akash surface-to-air missiles, which have an interception range of 25 kilometers against aircraft, helicopters and drones. China carped about that sale and delivery despite the weapons’ extremely short range capabilities.

Earlier this year India started to train Vietnamese pilots how to fly Sukhoi fighter jets and Vietnamese sailors how to operate Kilo-class submarines, Russian military equipment which both countries’ armed forces use. India has developed the variant BrahMos-A, a lighter version of the missile designed specifically to be launched from its Su-30 MKI strike fighters. The heavier BrahMos can be launched from land and sea.

India’s engagement with Vietnam is part of its “Act East” policy of building influence in East and Southeast Asia, a wide-ranging bid to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. Hanoi has concurrently aimed to diversify its strategic relations to both counterbalance and reduce its traditional reliance on China.

Vietnam is also bolstering strategic ties with Japan, a trend which began in 2011 coincident with a new wave of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and recently agreed to allow a US aircraft carrier to visit one of its ports in the coming months, the first such American docking since the Vietnam War.

India and Vietnam agreed to elevate their strategic partnership established in 2007 to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Hanoi last September. As part of that agreement, Modi offered Vietnam a US$500 million line of credit for defense purposes.

While the two sides’ ties have grown, the BrahMos sale has been a sticking point due to concerns over how China may react. Developed jointly with Russia, which is known to approve the sale, the BrahMos system has a 290-kilometer range, can reach Mach 2.8 speeds and is capable of targeting ships, submarines, planes or land-based targets like command centers, radar towers and missile launchers.

While now may not be an opportune time for India to provoke China, Vietnam is keen to up its maritime defenses. In 2013, the Indian Navy successfully tested a submarine launched version of the BrahMos, a capability that allows for nearby strikes without being detected by potential targets. The missile also performs an evasive “S-maneuver” before impact that makes it difficult to shoot down at close range.

The BrahMos is clearly in Beijing’s sights as it builds still largely unprotected strategic facilities in the South China Sea. Last year, China complained about India’s deployment of BrahMos missiles on its border across from Tibet, saying the supersonic weapons exceeded New Delhi’s self-defense needs.

Presciently, perhaps, the People’s Liberation Army Daily op-ed last October said the deployment along their shared border would increase “antagonism” in China-India relations and have a “negative impact” on regional stability.

China has been mostly muted as India and Vietnam have drawn strategically closer. It’s yet to be seen if China will challenge Indian energy firm ONGC Videsh’s two-year extension given by Hanoi last month to explore for oil in the South China Sea, as it did this month with Spanish energy company Repsol’s drilling in a separate area.

One view of India’s foray into the South China Sea is to keep China concentrated in a more proximal area and diminish its rising interest in the Indian Ocean, where India has traditionally had preeminence. But it’s just as likely China moves more aggressively into the Indian Ocean, where it is developing a string of ports in India’s neighboring nations, if New Delhi sells and delivers the BrahMos system to Vietnam.

It’s still possible that Vietnam’s mixed messaging on the status of the proposed missile sale was meant to send a signal to both nations – a notice to China that better defense is at the forefront of its mind after Beijing’s pressure to stop exploration in the area, and a goad to India that it wants to finalize the deal after a drawn-out negotiation that has garnered more strategic think pieces than actual deliverables.

Vietnam is turning increasingly to major powers for security cooperation and stronger deterrence against China’s militarization of the features it controls in the South China Sea. Reports indicated Beijing threatened military action if Vietnam did not withdrawal its Spanish concessionaire’s exploration ship from contested waters, but later reports played down that an actual threat was made.

Vietnam’s bid to push China into a binding code of conduct in the area via the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was iced after the consensus-driven organization failed to reach agreement on the issue this month in Manila. Hanoi has become a lone voice in the association on the need to take a tougher stand on China’s perceived provocations in the maritime area.

That perceived multilateral failure makes the fast acquisition of BrahMos missiles even more important to Vietnam. But as India reaches a delicate rapprochement with China in the Himalayas after the worst flare-up between the two Asian giants in decades, it’s not clear yet India aims to push the deal forward, if, indeed, it hasn’t already quietly been done.

By Helen Clark - Asia Times - August 30, 2017