The deal can serve as a strategic springboard for expanded defence cooperation between New Delhi and key Southeast Asian countries. It also sets a major precedent for the Philippines, which is gradually diversifying its pool of defence suppliers after decades of US dependence.
- The deal can serve as a strategic springboard for expanded defence cooperation between New Delhi and key Southeast Asian countries
- It also sets a major precedent for the Philippines, which is gradually diversifying its pool of defence suppliers after decades of US dependence
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, goes the famous Chinese proverb ascribed to Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu. In both life and law, a single landmark decision can set in motion a chain of events with major long-term repercussions.
In many ways, the same principle applies to the recently concluded BrahMos missile deal
between India and the Philippines. By every indication, the sale of three missile batteries is unlikely to change the regional military balance.
The US$375 million agreement, however, is likely to be the opening act in India’s increasingly defence-oriented “Look East” policy, further propelling the Asian power’s plans to become a major player in the global defence industry.
The sale can serve as a strategic springboard for expanded, hi-tech defence cooperation between New Delhi and key Southeast Asian countries. It also sets a major precedent for the Philippines, which is gradually diversifying its pool of defence suppliers after decades of overdependence on the West.
For a long time, India stood as the world’s largest arms importer. Between 2016 and 2020, it was responsible for almost 10 per cent of total global arms imports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).
Indian army soldiers clean their armoured vehicles during rehearsals for the upcoming Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, on January 17. Between 2016 and 2020, India was responsible for almost 10 per cent of total global arms imports, according to Sipri. Photo: AP
Squeezed between two rivals, China and Pakistan, India has been on a massive spending spree to enhance its defensive capabilities. From French fighter jets
to Russian missile defence systems
, New Delhi has been sourcing cutting-edge military hardware from both the West and East.
It was only after a whopping 61 per cent increase in its defence imports between 2016 and 2020 that Saudi Arabia managed to dethrone India as the world’s biggest arms customer. Eager to achieve self-sufficiency and enhance India’s industrial-military complex, the Modi administration has been steadily building up the country’s defence industry.
India rolled back its defence imports by 33 per cent during the 2011-2015 and 2016-2020 periods. At the same time, it aims to increase its defence exports to US$5 billion by 2024 and increase the local content of its major defence acquisitions by collaborating with leading powers such as Russia, Japan and France.
The BrahMos – a portmanteau coined from the names of two rivers, India’s Brahmaputra and Russia’s Moskva – is actually the product of high-level collaboration between India and Russia. India’s sale of the supersonic missile to the Philippines, a US ally and major claimant state in the South China Sea, was by no means certain.
After all, New Delhi’s strategic reticence, particularly fears of provoking China, torpedoed previous attempts at exporting Indian defence items, most prominently the Prithvi surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missile deal with Vietnam.
India boosts military presence as border talks with China remain stalled
The BrahMos is a landmark acquisition for the Philippines. Yet, it’s doubtful whether it will significantly alter the balance of military power in the region, especially given China’s deployment of state-of-the-art missile defence systems
as well as its burgeoning hypersonic missile technology
The Philippines is expected to deploy the BrahMos batteries near the South China Sea. But given that Beijing has been rapidly expanding its military footprint across a host of artificially expanded islands, one can dismiss the Philippines’ latest purchase as “too little, too late”.
However, beyond symbolism, there are three reasons the BrahMos deal is highly consequential. First, it marks a major shift for Manila, which has historically relied on American-made weaponry. The BrahMos, derived from Russian technology, provides a great impetus for the Philippine defence establishment to embrace a new procurement doctrine, which mixes and matches cutting-edge hardware from a diverse set of suppliers.
The timing couldn’t be better, since the Philippines is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar military modernisation programme
, with a focus on the acquisition of strategic weapons systems and advanced warships, submarines and fighter jets. Manila’s ultimate aim is to develop a “minimum deterrence” capability in an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment.
Second, the BrahMos deal places the Philippines in a good position to purchase and operate upgraded versions of the missile system, including the BrahMos II hypersonic missile, which reportedly has a Mach 7 speed.
With BrahMos Aerospace rapidly expanding its production capacity, thanks to a 200-acre manufacturing plant
under construction, India is in a good position to offer a large number of upgraded, next-generation strategic missile systems to key customers such as the Philippines.
A BrahMos supersonic cruise missile is test-fired off India’s west coast In this photo released by the Indian Defence Ministry in November 2015. Photo: AFP / Defence Ministry
Finally, India’s high-profile sale to the Philippines has served as a strategic springboard for expanded defence cooperation with key Southeast Asian countries. Neighbouring Indonesia and Vietnam
could be the next big customers.
Indonesia has unveiled a massive US$125 billion plan
to modernise its armed forces, especially as it aims to become a “global maritime fulcrum” and strengthen
its naval presence in the resource-rich Natuna Islands. The Southeast Asian country, which has historically enjoyed a diverse pool of defence suppliers, has made it clear that expanding defence cooperation with alternative partners such as India is a top priority.
For its part, Vietnam, already a major Russian customer
, is also in talks
to acquire BrahMos missiles, Akash surface-to-air missiles and patrols boats amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. Down the road, India aims to position itself as a reliable supplier of advanced yet affordable weapons systems to key regional states.
As a major global vaccine producer, India has been a pivot in the Quad grouping’s efforts to counter China’s “vaccine diplomacy”. As India develops its burgeoning arms industry, it is also likely to join broader Quad-led efforts to equip and train smaller regional states against a resurgent China.
In short, the BrahMos deal is likely to be just the opening salvo in a new era of Indian defence policy in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” and the forthcoming “Duterte’s Rise”