Defence cooperation with Vietnam is, in fact, a bold move. The message is clear: India is not afraid to flex its muscles in the South China Sea region.
There is, perhaps, nothing that spells love between two countries quite as much as the four-letter word—arms. And, India recently distributed armed love, abundantly.
It inched closer to Afghanistan—more helicopters are in the offing—when Afghan army chief Qadam Shah Shahim came calling. Then it enveloped Vietnam in a $500-million military hug during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Hanoi.
Defence cooperation with Vietnam is, in fact, a bold move. It is India’s most generous line of credit for defence so far. New Delhi had a $100-million ceiling, which Modi expanded by $400 million.
The message is clear: India is not afraid to flex its muscles in the South China Sea region.
It is said that the BrahMos cruise missile, which has a strike range of 290km, is on Vietnam's wish-list. While there is absolute silence about the missile (which, if purchased by Vietnam, could be a 'signal' to China), it is no secret that Vietnam has been seeking it for the past five years.
The official statements by Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc, however, chose safer pastures—constructing patrol boats.
Afghanistan, too, has a wish-list. Afghan Ambassador Shaida Mohammad Abdali tells THE WEEK that General Shahim, who met the Indian military brass, has gone back “very happy’’.
“India, as always, and perhaps more than any time before, offered to help in areas where we have required assistance,” he adds.
The Christmas gift pack of four Russian-made Mi-25 attack helicopters that Modi presented to Afghanistan last December was just the beginning. “We need special assistance in airfields. Our air capabilities are limited still, and India is going to be a great partner in filling those gaps,” says Abdali. “India will help us build an air force maintenance factory, which we have been requesting for a while. Also, Afghanistan badly needs spare parts for its grounded Russian-made helicopters such as Mi-25 and Mi-17. That would be a great help.”
Afghanistan can circumvent the western sanctions imposed on Russia by acquiring them through India. Notably, this plan was encouraged by US and NATO commander General John Nicholson, who visited India recently.
It is clear that India's target in this deal is another neighbour. For a country that had for decades refused to dabble in the sphere of weapons sale, the shift in policy is significant. These are baby steps for India—which imports 70 per cent of its defence equipment—but they are more about intention and strategy.
India, of course, has supplied weapons to countries in the past, but that was always in secret. India supplied weapons to Africa in the 1980s, especially the liberation movement against the Portuguese in Mozambique, when Indira Gandhi was prime minister. Myanmar and the Afghan Northern Alliance, too, have received Indian military aid.
Of late, however, defence ties are being clubbed with India's traditional diplomacy. “There is military dimension to diplomacy with respect to countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives,” says Rakesh Sood, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. “It is a reflection of being seen as a net security provider in the region. It has happened gradually, as there has been an increase in [India's] military strength and a shift of the scene of action to the Indian Ocean. This, after all, is India’s backyard.”
In 2014, India had grossed $55 million from arms export. Moving beyond Nepal and Bhutan, India’s potential as an exporter has been slowly rising, especially in the Indian Ocean region.
The Barracuda warship supplied to Mauritius in 2014 was the first, though tentative, open declaration of the intent. The ship, which is capable of moving at a max speed of 22 knots with an approximate displacement of 1,350 tonnes, was the first Indian-made warship to be exported.
“If you want to boost your defence industry, you have to look at countries that will need equipment from India,” notes Sood. Then, the choice, of course, is closer home.
Dhruv helicopters and fast-attack boats have gone to the Maldives. Supply of training, radar and surveillance equipment, and coordinated patrols with countries such as Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Thailand are the order of the day.
India has also learnt to assert itself. It blocked the $400 million sale of JF-17 Thunder jets from Pakistan to Sri Lanka earlier this year. Then, there is the innocuous-sounding HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) guideline with the Bangladesh navy.
Earlier, India had stopped Bangladesh from signing a similar agreement with America, which would have allowed American troops to land in Bangladesh on a humanitarian mission without visas.
The Vietnamese deal is part of this show of strength.“This is a continuum from the UPA-I government, when India and the US signed the nuclear deal,’’ says former Air Vice Marshal A.V.M. Kak. “There has been a shift in the template and we are looking at a different configuration. What Modi has done is that he has internationalised it. If you look at the references that he and his Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar make, they have emphasised that India is no longer a stabiliser but a leader.”
And, military diplomacy is part of being a leader. President Barack Obama’s focus on the east—where Southeast Asia has acquired new importance—has also helped.
The Americans, who were earlier not keen on India taking on this role because of its ties with Pakistan, have changed their stance. “Earlier, the Americans would walk out of a meeting if anyone mentioned Pakistan and terrorism in the same sentence,” recalls an Afghan official. “They were so convinced that Pakistan was an ally.’’
Now, India is the country Uncle Sam hopes to rely on to fight the war in Afghanistan. “The policy will be seen as effective only if we provide Russian-made equipment to Afghanistan. And if we provide BrahMos to Vietnam,” says former diplomat G. Parthasarathy. “Otherwise, we will remain marginal players.”
There, however, are limitations. Most equipment that India has to offer are still not indigenous—they are often assembled Russian equipment. To be a bigger player, India has to do more.
There is also the issue of consequences. “It is a new game we are playing,’’ says former foreign secretary Shashank. “The public opinion is very clear when it comes to Pakistan. But with China, I am not sure if the public is ready, if it costs us bilateral relationship.”