The Southeast Asian country might be the first genuine customer for the lethal cruise missile. But this is denied by India after reports circulated online that the BrahMos–a supersonic weapon system developed by India and Russia–was delivered to Vietnam. Last week, the Economic Times quoted an “external affairs ministry spokesperson” named Raveesh Kumar who debunked news of the BrahMos sale, calling it “incorrect.”
According to Kumar, even Vietnam’s own foreign ministry acknowledged the BrahMos claim as bogus. But as the Economic Times noted, there was no “clear denial” from either side and no member of India’s defense ministry commented on the matter.
India and Vietnam began negotiating arms deals as far back as mid-2016. Both countries already have cooperation agreements in place for cross-training and maintenance services to help the Vietnamese military. It was believed Vietnam was eager to acquire BrahMos cruise missiles and Akash SAMs for modernizing its arsenal, which is overly reliant on Russian-made weapons.
Whether the BrahMos reached Southeast Asia or not, it’s understandable for Indian officialdom to remain cautious. The Doklam standoff and the recent scuffle in Lake Pangong have ruined ties with China and increased the risk of war, or at least an armed clash. This comes at a time when President Xi Jinping is keen on promoting his achievements and cementing his grip on the PLA, whom he instructed to “march wherever the [Communist] Party points to” in July for its 90th anniversary.
If BrahMos missiles, which are capable of Mach 2.8 flight speeds, are now in Hanoi’s possession this could invite an unkind response from Beijing. Anticipating these consequences might be too much for Delhi since three of its neighbors, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, use Chinese-made weapons and have access to more. China’s state controlled manufacturing base can also build missiles similar to the BrahMos like the CX-1 that’s available for export.
One of the few sources claiming the BrahMos sale was in fact completed is the author and analyst Bharat Karnad, who welcomed the transaction as a strong move on Delhi’s part. Karnad only mentioned the “Vietnamese Government” announced it had BrahMos missiles and went on to explain why they’re valuable.
“Hopefully, the Vietnamese will use the Indian BrahMos as shore battery to protect their offshore oil rigs and other infrastructural energy assets in the South China Sea,” he wrote on August 18.
Karnad believes “[these] prevent the relentless Chinese bullying in the waters off its coastline, and to contain the Chinese Navy’s powerful South Sea Fleet out of the Sanya base on Hainan Island.”
Vietnam’s defense spending is minuscule, totaling just $5 billion in 2016, but it does have Kilo-class submarines, Su-30MK fighters, and Israeli drones in its arsenal. Given the festering dispute over the South China Sea, BrahMos missiles should be enough to keep Chinese warships at bay and deter any provocations.