Since around early 2000s I have been advocating the sale of nuclear-warheaded Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missile to Vietnam as a payback to China for its nuclear missile-arming Pakistan. The strategic need for this was detailed in my 2002 book ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ (Macmillan, a 2nd edition published in 2005) and again in my 2008 book ‘Índia’s Nuclear Policy'(Praeger, 2008)
The strategically-challenged Indian govts of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh sat on it making some excuse or the other. In 2011, when the Vietnamese govt first formally sought this missile from Delhi PM Manmohan Singh, more concerned with China’s adverse reaction than India’s national interest, raised the issue of Russian apprehension of such sale to stymie the request. Except some four years later, the Russian resistance to such sale magically disappeared — because there wasn’t any such barrier in the first place. In May 2015, Indian Defmin Manohar Parrikar signed an agreement with his visiting Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh that talked of maritime security cooperation without mentioning the fact that the BJP govt of Narendra Modi had finally acceded to Hanoi’s request for the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile.
Seven months later no Brahmos missile is in Vietnamese hands, and no Indian military technical team has visited Hanoi to firm up the means of transfer and to set up the infrastructure for the coast-based Brahmos batteries. The Modi dispensation is proving as strategically dense as its predecessor, delaying the sale and offering India’s non-membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as excuse for non-implementation of the Brahmos understanding. Delhi’s keen-ness about joining MTCR and thereby restricting its options to transferring longer-range Agni and other missiles to countries on China’s periphery in need of deterring China, cannot be explained except in terms of the traditional strategic spinelessness and myopia — a terminal affliction.
But MTCR is an excuse because, sotto voce, Indian officials freely divulge the real reason for the delay of the sale — American pressure. Now why would Washington object to an Indian weapons sale injurious to Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea? Because the US would rather Hanoi opt for American weapons as a security solution instead, that’s why. And Modi, like Manmohan Singh, will apparently do nothing to rile the US.
Meanwhile, Hanoi is not waiting around for Delhi to muster the guts it doesn’t have. It has got Russia to speedily ship 25 of the promised 50 sub-launched Klub-class anti-ship missile — the M-54E Klub-S (range 220km) or 3M-54E1 (range 300km), and the land attack 3M Klub4E (range 300km). And it has embarked the first of the six Kilo 636 submarines procured from Russia on patrols in the waters off its coast with the Klub supersonic missiles on board, to prevent China’s venturing against its oil rigs in that area. And the situation grows tense with the elite corps-sized Vietnamese Army formation — the 308 Division (of the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap) guarding the 1400 km long mountainous border with China, getting into battle-ready condition because Hanoi smells trouble from that quarter.
And India once again fluffs an opportunity to show it can stand up to China by standing besides friendly frontline states. For Modi and his PMO to believe that China will back India as a permanent member of the UN security council if it desists from arming states on its borders with decisive armaments is to merely confirm the view of the Indian govt as populated by dreamers and lotus-eaters. China will not allow India entry into the Security council no matter what. Delhi better appreciate this fact and act disruptively to upend not just Chinese designs on Asia, but also keep the US at bay by doing things that need doing, especially those things Washington wishes India not do.
What are the things the Modi govt can and should immediately do? (1) ship out both anti-ship and land attack variants of the Brahmos missile to Vietnam on a priority basis, (2) arm some of the Brahmos land attack missiles with fuel air explosive warheads that DRDO developed some 20 years back — it will instill in the PLAN the fear of God — because a strike by these weapons on the Sanya South Sea Fleet HQrs will devastate that entire base — the sort of thing that will give the CMC in Zhongnanhai the willies, and (3) equip the Vietnamese Army 308 Division with the 700 km range Agni-1s. This will be sufficiently credible deterrence against the PLA pushing in as it did in 1979, except now it will get a bloodier nose. The Vietnamese are not like Indians with their tails between their legs when confronting China.
But would such measures materialize anytime soon? Not a spitball’s chance in hell! Because that would be a very different, great power India, and not a country that bends to the whims of this or that power, and stays its hand at the slightest hint of trouble.